When I was in primary school, there was a dentist’s on-site at the school and every few days someone in my class would be summoned to the clinic to get their teeth checked. A child would appear at the door, read out the name on the slip and then disappear. And then whoever had been chosen would leave the classroom, take the long walk up the quiet garden path and enter the clinic. There they would wait, listening to the torture taking place in the other chair. Crying, screeching, screaming…no parent around to comfort you, just you, a dentist, an assistant and a bunch of scary look sharp things that were going to end up in your mouth.
For me, being sent to the dentist was much like being sent to the principal – something I also tried to avoid at all costs by being on my best behaviour at all times. (I was a square so it wasn’t such a problem.) Once at the dentist, they’d then examine my mouth and tell me what I had done wrong, that I wasn’t brushing enough or, even I was, that it was no good and whatever I’d been doing had caused all these fillings. Once I had to have three in one go. Obviously this was due to some moral defect in my character.
As a result, after primary school finished, I didn’t go to the dentist for about eight years. For some reason my parents never bothered to send me to another clinic. Once I’d grown up a bit I realised that with such a long break between check-ups, there could be all sorts of problems that needed to be fixed. I then had to balance whether it was a bad thing to not go versus hearing how bad it was I hadn’t gone and all the problems I had now caused myself.
Miraculously that first visit after a long hiatus revealed that my teeth were fine. I don’t think I had any cavities. Obviously my adult teeth were much more resilient than my baby teeth. I then instigated six-monthly check-ups and have been going ever since (even after having to have my wisdom teeth out).
A bit of psychotherapy at the dentist’s
Yet, when I went to the dentist the other day, despite going regularly, I was more anxious about whether the dentist would admonish me for not flossing as often as I should (I floss intermittently. More in the lead-up to a check-up.) rather than because it had, in fact, been eight months since my last check-up, I had left it too long and my mouth would now have as many holes as a block of Swiss cheese. It was then that I realised it’s not the pain that comes from a dental exam (which is minimal) or the threat of lengthy open-mouthed procedures that locks my muscles and makes me slowly close my mouth. It’s the fear of being told off.
I must hold a lot of tension in my mouth, or perhaps my eyes widen, or my deep, controlled breathing gives me away, but dentists always seem to ask me if I’m doing ok during a procedure. It’s probably something they ask everyone but there seems to be a special inflection, like they’re expecting me to leap up and run screaming at any moment. I don’t, of course, because that would make me look bad. Again, the threat of a perception of poor character.
You might be thinking this is all a lot of rot, that I’m just frightened of the dentist and that’s normal and why would anyone want to willingly go regularly to be poked and prodded in the mouth.
All true and possible, yet when the exam was over, the dentist said that apart from a few minor, reversible issues, my teeth and gums were looking good. In fact, I’d being doing a “good job”
I left the dentist feeling fine, with clean teeth and gums, and a follow-up appointment to replace and old filling. I also left pondering this insight into my psyche and wondering if, now that I’m aware of, I’ll now feel more comfortable at the dentist’s or whether next time will be much the same. Perhaps the threat of being ‘told off’ is a good incentive when it comes to oral hygiene.
Do you have dentophobia or are you cool, calm and collected in the dental chair? Leave a comment below to let me know.
And just because, here’s Steve Martin as a sadistic dentist from Little Shop of Horrors.