You know how sometimes you leave the dentist’s office all happy and smiling?
No, you most likely don’t, because most dentists’ offices are hellholes of pain. You are at the mercy of masked dentists and hygienists, who scrape and drill at your molars while asking you questions about your weekend, which you can only answer with grunts as you clench the armrests of the hydraulic chair and drown in your own saliva.
I’ve had a lot done to my teeth.
Genetics gave me weak enamel, which meant that every childhood visit to the dentist included a drill and shiny silver amalgam. I rarely got to pick out a sticker or eraser from the prize bin after my cleaning; those were for the no-cavity kids, and I wasn’t a regular in that club. I brushed twice a day, I drank milk, I flossed now and then, and it never seemed to be enough. Things evened out in my late teens, and I was lucky enough never to progress to a root canal, but my dental X-rays show the scars of at least a dozen filled cavities.
To add to the insult of my easily-eroded enamel, my teeth came in crooked. Very crooked. I literally could not bite my nails, as my incisors didn’t connect. Corn-on-the-cob was impossible for me to eat, and biting into an apple carried with it the risk of breaking off a tooth. Taking pity on me, my parents absorbed the cost of a full set of braces, which I wore for three difficult years. I needed to have four premolars extracted before we could begin the process, and I remember the strange contrast between the pain in my mouth and the tingling, floating feeling in my feet as they cranked the nitrous oxide up to keep me relaxed while they pried four healthy teeth loose from my jaw. I am grateful that my parents and my oral surgeon allowed me to choose general anaesthesia when it was time to remove my four impacted wisdom teeth.
Once my shiny braces were glued into place and secured with the tiniest of rubber bands, brushing and flossing was harder to do well, so I had more plaque buildup, making cleanings at my dentist’s office longer and more painful. The hygienists were kind enough, and tried to be gentle, but every part of my mouth was so sensitive from the constant pressure of the braces, and I know I cried more than once. The dentist, playing “bad cop” in this game, would berate me for having so much plaque, and for being overly sensitive, telling me that other kids managed just fine with braces and I needed to try harder.
I dreaded going back to my orthodontist’s office to adjust (tighten, always tighten) the wires. He was a huge man – his belly would sometimes jar the chair if he moved while he was working on my teeth. He didn’t always wear a face mask, and his breath was horrendous. He wore gloves, always, but they were a different kind than my regular dentist and hygienist used. They smelled much more rubbery and squeaked against my teeth as he prodded the wires and twisted them into place. You know, the horrible squeaking sound a balloon makes when you rub it with your hand? That spine-tingling, biting-into-styrofoam sound? Imagine half an hour of that, in your mouth.
Understandably, I now have a little dental anxiety. I’ve considered this newfangled “sedation dentistry”, but I’m not sore how that would work with this newfangled “dental insurance” thing I have, now that I’m a responsible adult in charge of my own oral health. I’ve been in the US for five years, and I’ve seen a dentist a grand total of three times. The first time, everyone was very nice, but they tried to sell me an expensive nighttime bite guard to fix my jaw pain (which never happens at night), and got a nasty “you’ll regret this” attitude when I told them that $800 was more than I was willing to spend on something like that. The second time, I tried a different office, but was equally disappointed with my experience. This place was like a dental factory, with a dozen dentists, a few dozen hygienists, and all the “exam rooms” laid out in one huge open space with flimsy cubicle walls between them. They pushed me into a deep cleaning, because it had been two years since my last one, but apparently “deep cleaning” means “angry hygienist just back from her smoke break, attacking your gums with a chisel and trying to be done in under ten minutes because it’s time for lunch.”
They sent me a reminder card when it was time to come back for another cleaning. I laughed.
But I can’t just avoid dentists. Preventative maintenance is important, especially if I want to avoid root canals and bridges and gum grafts in the future, so I got up some nerve to try a new place.
Today, I left the new place smiling.
The hygienists and dentists were wonderful. Nobody berated me for not flossing enough, and when I told them of my anxiety they took time to explain each step and go slowly and gently. I only yelped once, and the hygienist stopped, let me take a deep breath, and then moved on to other teeth before coming back to the area that hurt.
As I was leaving, the dentist saw me pick up my book, and asked what I was reading.
“The Android’s Dream, a sci-fi novel.”
“Is it any good?”
“I haven’t really gotten into this one yet, but I just finished another of his, and it was really good. It was called Old Man’s War.”
She sat up excitedly in her chair and clapped her hands together. “I’m always looking for new sci-fi! What’s it about?”
It’s hard to summarize without giving it all away, so I went with “It’s an interplanetary army recruited entirely from old people on Earth, since they’re going to die anyway.”
The hygienist piped up: “Oh, like Ender’s Game, but with old people!”
My new dental team is made up of geeks. It’s almost too bad I’ll only see them every six months. Almost.