I understand dental work can be a difficult issue for some people, which is why the majority of this post is behind the page break.
Adventures in Christian Science Dental Work
I recently met with an oral surgeon to discuss taking out my remaining wisdom tooth, part of the consult involved a questionnaire about my medical history which has only gotten more complex and interesting the longer I am out of Christian Science. I was quite upfront about my anxiety surrounding dental procedures and mentioned that very early on I had several cavities filled without the benefit of local anesthetic. The oral surgeon looked at my x-rays in horror, nearly all of my teeth have had some sort of work done to them, including three root canals, some rather deep fillings, and two previous wisdom tooth extractions.
I found myself facing that moment you find your self reassuring the oral surgeon that don’t worry, you “haven’t gone without local anesthetic since the late 1980s/early 1990s” and that “it was only two, maybe three that were filled without it and they were baby teeth” — this does NOT make it any better, but it does put in perspective how long it has been since I attempted to “pray away” the cavities. The oral surgeon recommended rescheduling w/general anesthetic instead of just local.
I don’t blame him in the slightest. I’d really rather forget the whole experience too, but you don’t really forget anesthetic-free fillings, how fluoride trays made you projectile vomit, or a really unpleasant episode with nitrous oxide.
My first cavities were found early on in elementary school. There was a “health screening” and my parents didn’t both to exempt me, the dentists checked all the children’s teeth and they found several cavities in mine. My mother asked around at church and someone recommended “Dr. Patty.”
Up until this point, I’d never been to a doctor or a dentist. I’d participated in the vision screenings at school, but only because my parents felt that was okay and they’d talked with the school nurse extensively about what was acceptable (they also wore glasses themselves), so having me say which direction the “E” went was fine and noninvasive. At this stage, I’d also been told, very firmly, that we were Christian Scientists and we prayed about these situations, we Knew the Truth, and that cavities were not real — I could pray about them, and was handed some CS-lit to help me with the situation. I’d also been told that doctors just want to “use you as a pincushion” and “poison” you, which wasn’t helpful because Dr. Patty held the title of doctor.
It was a recipe for disaster, an already terrified six, maybe seven-year-old, 1980-early 90s dental technology, the hard x-rays that cut into the gums, the lights that blinded, the trays of fluoride that made me gag and puke, the tutti-fruitti and bubble gum flavored toothpastes. The insistence of my mother that it was “necessary routine maintenance” and that I “should have brushed better.”
Then there was the dental work itself, I don’t remember the cleanings much, but I do remember the Back Room where the fillings took place. I have lost track of how many fillings I had, but I know I had a lot. I had an extraction of a badly chipped tooth. I also had two “crowns” placed on back molars. They closed the door so I was alone with them, my mother sat serenely in the waiting room reading Christian Science literature working to know the truth about my situation. As she sat praying, I was threatened with The Board, which only made me panic further and I promised to be still and cooperate. I’m fairly sure if she’d been in the room with me, facing the situation she would’ve done something differently, but she deferred to Dr. Patty’s judgement — “the doctor knows best” (mixed messages much?)
Those early years are a bit hazy, but I do remember, very early on the line went from “we don’t need pain medication for fillings” (no sensation in matter and all that) to “local anesthetic is OK because it makes the dentist more comfortable” (I think one of my parents had a root canal and tried to tough it out, caved and realized how unfair it was).
As I got a bit older, and graduated on to a non-pediatric dentist things got slightly better. There were no more fluoride trays, but the x-rays were still awful. I went to Dr. Do-it-all, he’d take care of everything from extractions to root canals. We didn’t have dental insurance (or health insurance) so my mother was perpetually worried about the cost, snagging cash discounts, “two-for-one” deals — the cavities were right next to each other, you only had to numb her up once, and questionable logic — can you do a root canal and an extraction at the same time? They’re on the same side! Follow up pain medication or antibiotics were never an option, my mother thoughtfully turned them down for me (I now realize how stupid and dangerous this was).
I managed to disassociate my way through most of my dental work, a walkman with a mix tape cranked up loud usually worked to drown out the drilling (later I used an ipod). I mastered the art of sitting very still, counting backwards from 100 and then starting over if I got distracted.
After I moved out, I didn’t seek out dental care until a second wisdom tooth came in, impacted and infected. This time, I took the full course of antibiotics — dentists orders or they wouldn’t do the extraction, and took the follow up pain medication — Tylenol3 (with codeine). I was awake for the extraction, as I had been for the previous one. I sat through it drowning out the noises with the loudest techno-pop I could find. I staggered home on the subway, collapsed into bed, fell asleep and had horrifying hallucinations as a side-effect of the Tylenol3.
I continued to avoid dental work until I broke a tooth, I was hugely pregnant, and thankfully I found a homeopathic dentist who was able to treat the situation without any pain medication and great care — it had a root canal so there were no nerve endings, but he still took extra precautions to make sure I was comfortable — pregnant women should not lay on their backs for too long.
I’ve been going to his practice now for over five years, regularly every six months. Sometimes I have cavities, sometimes I don’t, but I don’t feel judged when that happens. I also don’t feel like I am being punished. My dentist does an amazing job with local anesthetic, he is incredibly respectful of my anxiety, and calls in the evening after the procedure to make sure the pain is manageable (it is usually minimal if at all) and that I’m doing okay. My dentist uses words like “shouldn’t hurt” instead of “won’t hurt” — “won’t hurt” is a lie. He reminds me that I “may feel some pressure, but if you feel pain let me know.” *knock on wood* I’ve never had to use the Team America Secret Signal.
I’ve learned a few things over the years about dental work, and how to handle patients. Shaming someone for cavities, for not flossing enough, or not “brushing properly” does not encourage people to return. If anything, it discourages them from seeking care until it the problem is quite advanced. This often leads to even more unpleasant experiences where fillings must be deeper, teeth must be capped, or root canals must be preformed. The way things are phrased can make a huge difference. This may be a little uncomfortable or this shouldn’t hurt, please tell us if it does is much preferred to this won’t hurt a bit. Telling me I may feel some pressure, is a nice warning. Please don’t tell me to relax, it sets off alarm bells. Please don’t ask me if I’m doing ok, I’ll let you know if I’m about to freak out, a low-level state of terror is usual for dental work — and yes, I’d rather be awake for it, I have to drive home and have children to tend to, sedation dentistry is not a viable option for every little filling!
I’m not over my fear of dental work, but I no longer have massive anxiety attacks before I go in for cleanings or fillings. I get a bit irritable, but I’ve come a long way from my seven year old self who tied herself to the staircase bannister to avoid going to an appointment, bit a dentist (to be fair, they did say bite down and then left their fingers in the way), and threw up all over an assistant’s shoes after gagging on fluoride.
Right now, I find I am mostly angry and frustrated at my anxiety, I know how far dentistry has come since the late 1980s, and I know it will be an okay experience, but some days my inner seven year old wins, and I curl up in bed and sob in irrational terror at what might await me, which, at this point, is never as bad as what actually happens.