I would rather have a school of piranhas nibbling on my toes and a family of tarantulas crawling up my legs. I would rather be headbutted by a raging bull or punched repeatedly in the nose by an angry midget. I would rather slam my finger in the car door, tweeze my armpits, or lick battery acid. I would even rather spend an entire day attempting to teach common sense to Ann Coulter or enunciation to Ozzy Osbourne.
Painful, torturous propositions all–but I would gladly endure any one of them if it could take the place of (and have the same end results as) the horrifying experience that awaits me later today. Nothing incites such heart-thumping dread, such knee-knocking apprehension, such stomach-churning nausea, and such hyperventilating TERROR as entering a room filled with shiny, industrial-looking machinery and sharp instruments, reclining in a plastic-coated chair (complete with armrests for gripping), and having a dentist mutter those two little words that mark the beginning of the end for me: “Open wide!”
I’m not exaggerating. A trip to the dentist’s office turns this tough ol’ broad into a yellow-bellied, whimpering sissy-girl.
If you’ve ever seen Little Shop of Horrors, then imagine Steve Martin’s character–a sadistic, maniacal dentist who enjoys inflicting pain–and know that this is who I see coming at me with an evil gleam in his eyes and a set of forceps in one hand and a drill the size of a Volkswagon in the other. In fairness to my dentist, that’s not how he really is–he’s actually a pretty nice guy, a neighbor and a friend. This isn’t about him. It isn’t even about the pain, really (well, not entirely); I mean, I’ve given birth to three children and three kidney stones, so I am well acquainted with pain and consider myself to have a fairly high tolerance level.
It’s about sensory overload. It’s the sight (and feel) of the humongous needle boring into my tender gums, it’s the feel (and sound) of that gigantic drill grinding its way through my teeth, it’s the squeaky sound of the scaler scraping plaque from between my molars, it’s the smell of tooth decay being burnished away, and it’s the metallic taste of blood and decay intermingling.
And more than anything, it’s about my imagination getting the best of me. I can’t help it. I am a freak.
I try to take the best possible care of my teeth on my own so that the anguish of dental visits can be postponed as long as possible. And I have been doing pretty well, avoiding those visits for several years now (yes, I know, I should be ashamed). Or, at least, I had been doing well until last weekend. That’s when I was munching contentedly on a crunchy potato skin and suddenly bit into something rock hard and unrelenting. And when I spit the mouthful onto my plate for analysis, I discovered a rather large chunk of tooth within the mix. My fear of going to the dentist is so overwhelming that, for just a moment, I fervently hoped that the tooth might actually belong to a worker at the restaurant where the potato skins had been prepared–but no such luck. My probing tongue quickly located a gaping hole that the tooth had apparently just vacated, as well as a tiny sliver of tooth still hanging–a sliver so razor sharp that it was now cutting into my poor tongue.
Combine my overwhelming fear of going to the dentist with my obsessive fear of germs, and you might have some inkling of the dilemma I was now facing. I was in no pain–couldn’t I simply ignore the missing tooth? After all, the hole was all the way in the back of my mouth, so no one would ever see it. Eventually, the hole would seal itself–wouldn’t it? But, in the meantime, how many food particles would get trapped inside? How long before the food particles and bacteria combined forces to create a nasty infection–followed by horrendous pain?
As much as I hated the idea, I knew I had to make the call. Unfortunately, my dentist was in the hospital and unavailable, so he referred me to his dentist and assured me that the guy would take good care of me. He even contacted his dentist to let him know to be expecting my call.
That was on Saturday. On Monday it was late afternoon before I finally garnered enough courage to pick up the phone, afraid that if I called too early they might actually try to work me in that day–and I wasn’t ready. Following is the actual phone conversation I had with the dentist’s receptionist:
- Receptionist: “Good afternoon. This is Dr. D’s office.”
- Me: “Hello. My name is Karen E., and I am actually a patient of Dr. K’s …”
- Receptionist: “Yes! We’ve been expecting your call all day! Dr. D can work you in at 4:00 this afternoon–can you get here by then?”
- Me, blood pressure rising and breath quickening: “Oh, no, I can’t make it in today. I have a meeting and a ball game tonight.”
- Receptionist: “Well, then, how about 9:00 tomorrow morning–would that work for you?”
- Me: “No, no, tomorrow’s not good, either. I’m not psychologically prepared for tomorrow. Maybe sometime later in the week? My tooth isn’t hurting right now …”
- Receptionist: “Okay … I have a 4:00 open on Thursday; how would that be?”
- Me: “Do you use gas? Or anesthesia? Because I’m pretty sure there’s not enough tooth left to actually pull, and he might have to cut out what’s left, and I may need to be knocked out in order for him to do that.”
- Receptionist: “No, Sweetie, we don’t use those, but you’d be surprised what Dr. D can do with just a little bit to work with–he’s very good. So would 4:00 Thursday work for you?”
- Me, thinking that “having just a little bit to work with” implies digging and cutting and hurting: “Okay, I know we’ve never met, but I need you to understand that I’m a freak. I mean, I’m terrified of going to the dentist and I’m terrified of needles, and I WILL hyperventilate and I will jump and jerk and squirm. I will probably yell obscenities and dig holes in the armrests with my fingernails, and there’s a very real possibility that I might bite something, and …”
- Receptionist, laughing because she apparently thinks I’m exaggerating: “Sweetie, we have lots of patients like that, and I promise you everything will be fine. Besides, your dentist has told us all about you, and we’ve already called in your pre-meds to your pharmacy.”
- Me: “My pre-meds?”
- Receptionist: “Yes, Dear, your Valium. You can take one pill an hour before your appointment, and if you’re still nervous when you get here, you can take another one as long as you have someone to drive you home. So would 4:00 Thursday be okay?”
- Me, out of arguments: “Okay, I guess 4:00 Thursday will work. I’ll see you then, and I’m sorry in advance.”
- Receptionist: “No problem. We’ll see you then.”
- Me, hanging up and thinking, “No problem? She still has no idea. I tried to warn her.”
And now the day I have put off, the day I have been dreading all week, has arrived. I’ve been awake since 2:03 a.m., and I am already nervous. I’m afraid if I eat, I will throw up. I’m afraid if I don’t eat and take Valium on an empty stomach, I will throw up. But I have the pills, and I have the driver, and somehow I will get through this. I hope.
I’m not so sure about the dentist, though. If you happen to glance at your clock sometime around 4 p.m. (central time) today, you might send up a little prayer that the good dentist ends his day with the same number of fingers he started it with.