There’s a classic shot in alien movies where the abducted wakes up in a flash of bright light. His eyes close and open lazily, and the shot feels the darkness rise and fall with each blink. Perception is fuzzy, but there’s a bright light overheard. Creatures in masks methodically bring tools in and out of the frame–tools at which we can only guess the purpose, tools for cutting and slicing and drilling and pulling and sucking. This scene is terrifying because it’s shot from the first-person perspective, but even more terrifying because it mimics the trip to the dentist, a much despised but exceedingly necessary bi-annual event.

Some people might claim they like the dentist, but they’ve never been. I was one of these for years, as a bouncy child with bright pearly whites and resilient enamel. I’d never glimpsed a drill, and the worst memory of my youth was when my hygienest used a cinnamon polish that made me puke out my mom’s window on the way to a friend’s birthday party. The hard times were the times when I got sealant on my back molars, a gentle tsk tsk from the dentist when I shrugged embarrassingly at the “how often do you floss?” question, the days there were only balloons and no more toy cars in the goody basket.

I'm a cool customer in the dentist's chair.

So I say again, if you like the dentist, you’ve never been. You’ve never had ’em throw a rubber dam over your mouth, push and pull your lips aside, shoot you up with novocaine, mutilate your gums, and then dump you by the side of the road, your wallet a little bit lighter for the process.

My last few trips to the dentist have been eventful, which is not what you want. In January, I started at a new practice and after all the x-rays and introductions, they discovered the need for some fillings in two spots. I went a week later for the first spot to be filled. The second appointment was scheduled for a week later. I never went back after that first experience. I had hoped it would go away.

Fast forward six months and they’ve still got work to do in the same spot, and it might be getting worse, too. So today I went in for the follow up and let them go to town on me.

I don’t know what it is about dentists that makes them want to carry on a conversation with you as they’re pulling your teeth about, but it seriously baffles me. They ask complex questions about the state of political affairs in the Middle East, or a few words on the importance of environmental conservation. I’m trying to throw together a response with a nod and an “mmm, eh aghsloff” here and there, hoping the subject’ll change and we can move back to yes’s and no’s.

The thing that’s always been somewhat striking to me is that dentists seem to lack a sense of humor. They have to know their job brings misery, they have to! It’s a brutal experience, the subject of good stand-up and bad blog posts. And yet, when you throw around some sarcastic comments about pain and the horror of the process, they brush it aside, “Oh it won’t be that bad!” If most dental hygienists in my experience weren’t such kind and friendly young women, I wouldn’t be able to keep myself from responding, with a glare and a declaration: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

As one hygienest was shooting me up with a four-inch needle at the start of the process, she kept asking “Is it still okay? Still doing good?” No, it wasn’t. But what am I supposed to say? Is there an alternate method, something less painful that she’s waiting to pull out of her drawer when I utter a word of complaint? If not, then why ask? I know the needle is going to be terrible and I know it’s a necessary part of the process, if I’m going to be spared later pain. Just shoot me up and get it over with.

I was smart enough today to bring in an some headphones and some music while the drilling was happening (TV on the Radio’s New Cannonball Blues goes nicely with the rhythm of a supersonic drill, by the way. Keep an eye out for the remix). I’d finally found a way to tune out the worst of the ambient dental noises, and a way to cue the doc that I wasn’t interested in carrying on a deep conversation about my well-being or African hunger. I was so shot up with novocaine today that I actually fell asleep in the chair. About an hour through the process, the dentist pulled out my ear plug and told me I was “doing great!” I was motionless, looked like a balloon had exploded across my face, drugged and numb across half my mouth. I’m glad I was doing so well.

A half hour later, I walked out of the office with a smile like Two-Face and a strange affinity for rubbing my numbed-up lip and feeling nothing in return. Now, I can feel the numbness fading and the pain coming on. I’m not quite sure when I’ll get a chance to eat again or whether this experience will be inspirational enough in the long term to keep me flossing more than once a month. A horror film indeed–and I paid $190 for the pleasure of the experience. Love that dentist.


2 thoughts on “Dentist

  1. Hi Ian,
    Would you consider allowing me to share your story with my dental hygiene students? You write about such a common (and unfortunately so) experience among patients that I would appreciate providing them with a true Patient perspective, besides a little humor is healthy. In the education program where I teach, we focus on patient-centered care which includes a strong empathic component. The professional goal of Dental hygiene is disease PREVENTION. If we could truly function in that capacity, millions of people like you could be spared your unpleasant experience. Love your blog!
    Your cousin, Deb

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