The dentist

My parents took me to a dentist when I was very young and the experience traumatized me. The effects of that are still with me today.

I believe that he didn’t knowingly traumatize me. He thought he was a very good dentist. It turns out he wasn’t as good as he thought and in many ways he wasn’t a very good person. If he’d really thought about what he was doing then none of this would have happened.

He caused me immeasurable pain and terror because he didn’t use anesthesia when he worked on my teeth. He thought he could be very gentle and delicate and that he didn’t have to give me anything. He also thought that simply seeing the needle (needles for dentists are very large) would frighten me.

Ideally, he would have given me a shot anyway and explained the benefits of it. Ignorance leads to fear which leads to pain. Seeing the needle could be frightening sure, but that is when you explain why it is long (to reach inside your mouth) and how it will help (to make sure you don’t feel any pain).

Without a shot, I was in fact in pain. But also, I was in terror, because I knew that if I moved I could be very hurt. One wrong slip with that drill and he’d be drilling my cheek and not my tooth.

Strangely, he didn’t even have an assistant. So there was no one else in the room to look in my eyes and see the terror and suffering, both physical and mental.

Because my parents took me to him, I thought this was normal. I thought this was part of going to the dentist. I thought surely they wouldn’t make me go through this terror and pain for no reason.

People don’t really understand how traumatizing this is, that this authority figure caused me pain and my parents, other authority figures, took me to him. This means that what he’s doing to me is accepted and okay and normal and in fact, they’re paying him to do it.

No one warned me what was going to happen. That just adds to the pain. Any time something new is going to happen to anyone – but especially a child, explaining it beforehand is a kindness. It is all about thinking about the other person and their emotional needs. They don’t know what is going to happen. They don’t even know what to ask. It is the medical professional’s duty to remember that even though s/he has performed that procedure a thousand times, this is the first time for this patient. Not only is “informed consent” important, it is also simply kind and humane and compassionate to make sure they know what to expect.

I’m so grateful that I’m realizing all of this. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t have the strength at the time to stand up and say “No you can’t do this to me.” or “You have to tell me what you are going to do to me before you do it.” But at least now I’ve noticed it and I can start to make changes. If I didn’t notice it then it would mean that I would continue to suffer and say nothing.

Hopefully by my writing about this, you will gain strength too and learn to ask for what is going to happen before it does if your doctor doesn’t think to tell you. Hopefully you might start to understand the root of some of your distress as well. Uncovering this root has really helped me in understanding some of my behavior and attitudes. This early experience badly affected how I related to and experienced the world. Now that I’ve uncovered it, I can heal myself from that point onwards.


I had a boyfriend who was 20 when was 17. His birthday was coming up and he wanted to celebrate it with his parents at his house and he wanted me to come. However, this involved a trip across the country in a plane. We flew from Chattanooga to Seattle, and then drove to some little town about two hours away. I was stuck at his house, in his town, with his parents. I had no way out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it became really obvious very soon that I was in trouble.

Having never made any moves on me before then, he attempted to have sex with me that very first night. I resisted and eventually managed to survive the week still a virgin. I broke up with him immediately upon returning home and didn’t speak with him for many years afterwards. He was deeply confused as to what had gone wrong. Even after I explained it to him he didn’t really understand.

I suspected something was wrong from the very beginning of the stay with his parents, when I was greeted by his parents at their house and his father was wearing only an undershirt and tight shorts. I was clued in to more when I learned that my boyfriend’s “rebel” earring wasn’t rebellious at all – his dad had one, and his brother had one. I also figured out that something was wrong when his parents matter-of-factly put my luggage and his luggage in the same room.

The alarm bells kept going off – there was a lot of smoke, but I didn’t have an escape plan. Worse, I’d been taught to ignore these alarm bells by the very people who should have taught me better.

What were the alarm bells? My parents would have never greeted a guest wearing their underwear. They would never even be seen in front of anyone, even family, like that unless they were sick. They certainly wouldn’t have put a non-married couple in the same room together, and much less if one person was a teenager.

For his parents to treat me like that was a warning that I was not in a “normal” house – and I certainly wasn’t safe. He proceeded to try to “pick my locks” as the Pink Floyd song goes every night that week, and I was terrified.

How could I leave? I had no car. I had no spare money. He had the tickets – he’d bought them.

Perhaps I could have called home and gotten my parents to wire me money for a new plane ticket – to leave right away. Perhaps I could have gotten a taxi and just left.

I didn’t. I felt trapped, and I had no frame of reference for this kind of behavior. I had no way of knowing how to act.

But in a way I did. My brother abused me in many ways throughout my childhood, and my parents did nothing. He beat me and stole from me and when I told them they didn’t make it better. They didn’t punish him at all. He eventually became a full-blown narcissistic psychopath, and they didn’t nip this in the bud. He learned early on that he could get away with manipulating people any way he wanted. He learned early on that he could treat people like things and get away with it. Since my parents didn’t defend me, I learned to be passive. This was how I was supposed to be treated, apparently.

My trips to the dentist as a child also taught me passivity. He didn’t use anesthesia because he thought the needle would scare me. I learned that pain was to be endured, especially pain at the hands of an authority figure. My parents were paying for it, so this must be normal. Suck it up.

While I’m angry at myself for not standing up and defending myself, I also have to forgive myself. I didn’t know better. I wasn’t taught well. I learned to accept bad behavior quietly until I could find a way to remove myself safely. I’m angry at them for not teaching me how to take care of myself at all. I’m angry at them for their ineptness. But I also need to remember that they, like all parents, are amateurs.

I went to a therapist once who thought I should just hang out in the “angry” place and not forgive or excuse bad behavior, but it isn’t that simple. Emotions aren’t just one or another, but a range of them. I can be angry and forgive at the same time. I can understand and empathize, but also be sad at people’s bad choices.

While I think that boyfriend and my family “should” have known better, I’m putting my value system on them. I’m forgetting that they don’t have to do things my way. I’m forgetting that they have their own ways of doing things, and if I feel that they are wrong – for me – then I must get away from them. They don’t have to stop doing what they are doing – they just have to stop doing them to me. Their actions are their own, and the consequences of their actions are their own.

This all reminds me of how nobody told me how to use the brakes on a bike when they taught me to ride. I got very badly hurt, and it was totally avoidable.

Keep the patient happy and comfortable – especially at a dentist’s office.

Dentist chairs need to be way more comfortable. This is a time of extreme discomfort. Whatever they can do to make you feel at ease is a good idea.

How about a support for my knees? How about a wider chair? Basically, how about a recliner, but in a cleanable fabric. Because sometimes dental work can get messy, and stains don’t inspire confidence. I’m pretty sure a dentist would hate to have to get a whole new chair because of slobber. So there has to be some balance between comfort and cleanability.

Having a small beanbag for a pillow is nice, as well as a blanket. Arm supports that cradle your arms are essential. Well, I had one of those, but a girl can dream. Making sure your patient is comfortable will ensure that your patient is easy to work on. My chiropractor seems to be the only person who understands this. Very few doctors seem to get how important it is to put their patients at ease by using soft colors and lights, and nice furnishings.

I dislike going to the dentist for fillings. I don’t know anybody who does like it to be honest. It is really an invasion of space. The majority of your sense organs are right there where they are working, and what they are doing isn’t that awesome.

For somebody with sensory processing disorder it can be a bit overwhelming.

Feeling the pinch in my gums and the tugging on my cheek when he gives me the shot. Hearing the sound of the drill. Seeing the spray of powder from my tooth when he drills. Smelling the burning from said tooth being drilled. All senses are being engaged, and none of them are getting good signals to work with.

I see and hear and smell things very deeply. This is part of why I am an artist. But it is also why it is hard to deal with really intense experiences like going to the dentist.

I’ve brought my phone. I can write in between bits. I can listen to a podcast during. I know a bit about meditation. Maybe some yoga practice will help.

I had a dentist when I was growing up who didn’t use anesthesia. He thought he didn’t need to. He thought he was gentle and careful. For the most part he was. But just being tense, worrying about the possibility of being hurt, was pretty bad. That alone made me never want to go back to the dentist, until not going really wasn’t an option anymore. My first trip back involved a root canal.

But at least that dentist had something interesting to look at. He had a mural on the wall that I was facing that had a huge scene. All these people doing all these things. It was kind of like the blue and white Chinese pottery called “Blue Willow”. I could get lost in it. I did. I had to. It was there that I learned to dissociate, to just not be there when something bad was going on.

My current dentist is very gentle and he uses anesthesia, but his rooms are really boring. There’s nothing to stare at or to fall in to with my mind. Today I found a spot of light shining through the blinds. It was something. The assistant kept asking me if I was OK. Yeah – until you had to bring me back to thinking about what is going on…

I’ve learned that bringing my iPhone helps. I listen to a podcast while it is all going on and that not only does that cut out the noise of the drill, my mind is occupied with something educational. I’ve also learned to consciously relax a lot. I mean a lot because I have to keep reminding myself to do it. I keep tensing up so I have to keep relaxing. Normally I’d work on my breathing, but that isn’t easy there. Too many bad smells.

In the meantime, I’ll keep brushing three times a day. The cavity that developed was around an old filling. It had lasted a long time. It was an old mercury filling so I was glad to see it go anyway. For a long time I was an old pro at getting fillings. It was so normal to me. Every time I’d go to the dentist I’d have to get a filling. Fortunately I’ve learned how to eat better and take better care of myself, so fillings aren’t my norm anymore. But I still think that the whole experience could be made better.

Maybe I need to get my chiropractor to talk to my dentist. Mood lighting is a good start. And no news or tabloid junk on the TV in the waiting room. And a nice welcoming paint job on the walls…or a mural. Yeah, that. Something to get lost in. I kind of miss that mural. I sure don’t miss that dentist.