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.

Healer vs. Doctor

I once saw a medical program on TV where a woman had tendonitis in her thumb. She had a young child and every time she picked him up she used her hand in a certain way that caused her thumb to repeatedly experience stress. On the show, the doctor gave her a steroid shot in her thumb to fix the problem.

The real issue though is that he was simply being a doctor. Doctors fix the symptom. Healers fix the problem.

If he wanted to be a true healer, he would have shown her different ways of using her hand so that she would never ever have that problem again. By being a doctor, and addressing only the symptom, he ensures that in the future she will experience the same problem again and thus need to seek him for help again. She will again get a shot and again not be any better in the big picture.

Heart Exorcise

While waiting for my cardiologist, I heard his comments with the patient in the room next to mine. The walls are very thin and so I was able to hear almost all of the conversation. Things weren’t going well for the patient. I could tell it was also very awkward for the doctor. He is fairly young, this doctor, in a field where he sees very sick people all day long.

I had seen the patient before in the waiting room. I suspected he had cancer by the color of his skin. It also looked like he had gone bald from chemotherapy. He was also being pushed around in a wheelchair and had oxygen. So there was far more than just heart problems going on here.

The doctor started off by saying “Sorry to hear about the diagnosis and stuff.” And then he asked the patient if he wanted to continue treatment he was on, assessing what was valuable and what wasn’t. With a stage four cancer diagnosis, you have to reassess everything. Some treatments are just more hassle than they are worth. Some are worthless. They had to make some hard decisions. Cure wasn’t an option. Just easing symptoms. Palliative care.

I thought how hard it has to be to be a doctor and go from patient to patient, from hard thing to hard thing. Of course he’s a cardiologist and people get sick and die. They’re not here because they’re well. I am one of the few patients who is well and is doing well. In part I go to a cardiologist because I want to stay well. But I am unusual. I believe in prevention, rather than cure.

The doctor came to visit me next. He was in a rush and wanted to get right into the exam. I asked the doctor when we had a pause how he goes from one patient to another when it’s a hard thing. He looked at me briefly and he said “You just get used to it.” That really wasn’t what I was expecting. I was hoping he would say something useful like “I pray” or “I do yoga”. But he just said “You get used to it.”

I could see later that he was shaking. You don’t get used to it. You don’t get used to carrying heavy burdens. And when you know that someone you know, even if it’s just a patient and not someone you love, is going to die soon and in a ugly way then it’s a heavy thing to have to carry.

The only way of getting rid of these feelings that are hard is processing them. It’s not about ignoring them or about running away from them. That it is not dealing with them.

Hard feelings are just like having to go to the bathroom. We have to know what to do when we have that feeling in our body. Stress is the accumulation of a lot of hard feelings that have not been processed. Stress is like poop. If you don’t get rid of poop it will build up and you will become very sick. If you don’t get rid of the anger and the sadness and the fear it will back up and you will also become very sick. There are ways to process it at the time, but the best thing is to learn how to not store it at all.

I do that by my practice. Part of that is exercising and by eating well daily. I get enough sleep. I make sure that I am strong enough to be able to handle these feelings when they come to me. Praying and reading the Word daily helps too. When something does surprise or overwhelm me, I remember to return to my routine and my practice. I remember to pray. I remember to do yoga. I remember to do art. I remember to write.

When something extra difficult happens, not the everyday sort of stress, I make sure to set aside a little extra time to do all of those things. I may paint a painting specifically for that purpose. I may write a poem just on that issue. I’ll write more, even though I may not publish it. I have to process it or it will process me.

Think of a food processor – something is going to get ground up into little bits. I’d rather have some say as to what gets ground up. You don’t just “get used to it”. If you don’t process something hard, it will use you up and wear you out. It will wash you away until you are nothing.

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.