My 13-year-old daughter, Pearl, is lying in the dentist’s chair. Her head is down low as the dentist leans over her.
I stand just outside the room at a safe distance. Her dad normally accompanies her on these visits, but today the duty has fallen to me. I try to keep my breathing even, try to keep myself from running out of the building. I know the panic I’m experiencing is unwarranted. It’s not even me in the chair! I try to stay calm, for Pearl’s sake.
The dentist finishes his exam and lets her sit up. “Your teeth look great,” he says, replacing his instruments on the tray. “Just one little cavity to take care of. You can schedule the appointment on your way out.”
Pearl keeps it together for the staff. But when we close ourselves into the car, she erupts, crying and shaking. “I can’t do it! There’s no way!” she wails, tears pouring. Her eyes are wide with a primitive fear that I know well.
I watch her in dismay. I’d hoped my daughters might escape the scourge of my dental phobia. As if it were a virus, I’ve tried not to pass it on. They drink fluoride-infused water and have beautiful, strong teeth, inherited from their father. Until now, there’s never been an issue.
The first time I allowed a tooth to crumble in my mouth, I was in fourth grade. Little shards kept getting in my food when I chewed. With my tongue, I could feel that the tooth was becoming jagged and shrinking in size. That’s strange, I thought, but told no one, hoping the problem would magically resolve itself.
My bad luck: a dental hygienist came to our rural Vermont school the following week to check everyone. When my name was called, I climbed into the special chair and the hygienist pumped her foot on the pedal. I rose helplessly toward her. She moved the light so that it bathed my face and made me open my mouth. My secret laid open before her, I squeezed my eyes shut while she jabbed at my teeth with her pick.
“Hmm, it looks like you have some decay here,” she said. She wrote a note at the bottom of her form, then folded it and handed it to me. “Make sure your parents get this,” she said.
I didn’t read it until that afternoon, when I was alone in the bedroom I shared with my sister. I sat on my bed and unfolded the paper. It said I had six cavities. Six! I crumpled the paper and threw it into my Charlie Brown wastebasket. Then I waited while the waves of panic crested and fell, crested and fell.
I couldn’t go to the dentist. The idea of tools coming at my mouth was horror itself. At the dinner table, as I carefully managed a piece of hard bread, I avoided looking at my parents and siblings. Everyone chattered lightheartedly while I simmered in shame.
Over some weeks, I let the rest of the bad tooth—fortunately a baby one—come out on its own. Then I declared myself healed.
My father, a professor, wasn’t the type to worry about medical issues with us kids. He was forever lost in his books, too busy for such things. That realm belonged to my mother alone. Across the years of child-rearing, she’d faced my brother’s broken leg, an alarming bout of pneumonia my sister suffered, innumerable flus and stomach bugs. She coped with shots and cuts. But she seemed to always forget the dentist. And I certainly didn’t remind her. Years went by between visits.
Finally, when I was a teen, she announced to my sister and me that we were going for a checkup. I railed in protest.
“It’s much different now than when I was little,” Mom said. “It used to be scary, so scary, but they have much better methods these days. It won’t be so bad, you’ll see.”
I knew better.
We arrived at the office and found seats in the waiting room. My mother picked up a magazine to distract herself. My sister fidgeted. I held my breath. Soon, too soon, a dental assistant appeared in the room and called my name. I looked at Mom; her face was steeled, distant. She would not come with me. It was as if she’d become a different person, pulling away her warm hands and covering her soft belly where I liked to snuggle when I was scared.
There was no escape as I was guided to a chair in the center of a cold, dark room. The dentist, gruff and business-like, found my many cavities. I’d need several visits to fill them. Each time I went, I’d fight his hands, the needles, and instruments. He’d scold me. During one appointment I vomited from fear. Each time, Mom disappeared into a magazine in the waiting room, and I faced these horrors alone.
As I headed to college and into adulthood, I vowed I’d floss regularly and prevent any further need for the dentist. I focused on schoolwork and friends and finding love. Matt was a graduate student, a logical young man with a steady gaze. He wasn’t afraid of anything, it seemed. While I generally worried and fretted, he made light of most things, and this soothed me. After graduation, I moved in with him.
Meanwhile, my naturally soft teeth kept chipping and aching. In fact, there was a way-back molar that was splintering. I ignored it as best I could, but I woke one night to find that a toothache had blossomed and bloomed to its grandest glory, rousing me at its height. I hurled myself out of bed and ran for the ibuprofen bottle. Three pills could kill it, but it would take some time. My jaw was blazing with bone fever—lava boiling deep below.
Matt admonished me, pointing out that I had dental insurance. “It’s time to call someone,” he said. I cried all the way to the dentist and through the brief consultation, where I was told that I’d waited too long and would need an extraction.
After the X-ray at the oral surgeon’s office, Matt was allowed into the room. He calmly gathered my sweaty hand into his. The doctor, tall and bald, turned on the screen to show us images of my teeth, jaws, skull.
“You see these?” he said, pointing. “These are the wisdom teeth. See how they’re lying horizontally beneath the gumline? That means they’re impacted. All four of them. So we’ll take out those, as well as the infected one.”
He whistled a little as he moved about the examining room. I looked at Matt. He offered me a smile.
“Okay, lie back,” the doctor said. “Let’s take a look in your mouth.”
I couldn’t move. Terror was snaking around my heart and up to my throat. Hadn’t he seen all he needed to see, right through my skin? “I can’t,” I said.
“What do you mean?” he asked, straightening. He wore thick glasses that obscured his eyes.
“Well, do you really have to look in my mouth?”
He was instantly exasperated and left the room. We heard him complaining about me to his staff: “I can’t help this girl!”
Matt and I, stunned, gathered our things and skulked from the building. Then, while I sobbed at home in bed, Matt went back to the office and asked for my records, so we could go elsewhere for the procedure.
Oral surgery gave way to a reprieve, during which I could chew anything I wanted, even Snickers bars. I went to graduate school and began my career as a social worker. Matt and I got married. He saw me through two pregnancies, two cesarean sections. We were rewarded with daughters to dote on.
And the toothaches returned.
There have been seasons in my attention to dental health. After addressing a problem, I’d pretend it was the last one. For years, I’d skirt the responsibility of making actual appointments this way, only to be dashed again by pain, though never truly surprised by it.
Still, I had Matt to drive me to and from the dentist when I had to take a sedative, to hold my hand through the examinations and shots and fillings. In other areas of life, too, I relished his authority, his last word on decisions. It made everything easier—until it didn’t. One winter I looked at him and felt only resentment. Although it took some time to voice it, I knew I was done with this arrangement. It was time for me to grow up and leave the marriage.
In the past few weeks, a new kind of ache has developed. There’s no cavity visible, but I’m in agony from this molar, which can’t handle any chewing or extremes of temperature. Even the vibration of driving seems to irritate it.
One evening, while snacking on tortilla chips, I yelp when cool salsa touches my tooth. The ache persists for hours. Finally, the next day, I make an appointment for myself, a few weeks hence, so I’ll have time to gather my courage. I know I’ll have to get through it alone.
Thank goodness Pearl still has Matt to take her to the dentist—and buy her a muffin afterward. The day she gets her filling, she arrives at my house laughing. “It wasn’t bad at all. I can’t believe I was so scared of it!” I smile in relief. This is how it happens. With the right support now, while she’s young, she can learn to carry a sense of safety inside her. Maybe she doesn’t have to inherit my family’s phobia.
And what if it’s not too late for me?
I spend the next couple of weeks before my appointment preparing. While walking on the treadmill, driving to work, washing dishes, I picture the little girl I used to be, afraid to tell anyone she needs help. I take her to a sunny field, where the wind is drifting across the grass. We sit down. She climbs in my lap and I caress her head. “You’re not alone,” I tell her.
I think she is starting to believe me.
I’ll need some practical things, though, to get me through. I go online and purchase a weighted blanket to drape on myself in the dentist chair. I obtain a mild sedative, since my house is within walking distance and I won’t need to drive. I download some meditation podcasts.
On the morning of the appointment, I get up early and bring my coffee to the couch. I wince slightly when the hot liquid hits that tooth. Closing my eyes, I see the little girl, her freckled face shrouded in worry. I coach her to breathe deeply. We practice together.
At the dentist’s office, we’re called right away, and follow the assistant to the bright examining room. The little girl is grumpy and tense. I tell her she can sit beside me and I’ll hold her hand. I tell her she’s not the one in the chair today.
Then I turn to chat with the assistant, and then the dentist when he comes in. He’s wearing his white coat, pulling his tray of instruments close. He doesn’t want to hurt me. A frightening day for me is a regular one for him; he’s just doing his job.
I arrange the blanket on myself and begin to relax under its embrace. The soothing voice from my podcast drones in my ear. The little girl, seeing that she’s safe, swings her legs and waits.
I open my mouth and allow the instruments to probe. This is just a part of adulthood. Very soon this will be over, and we’ll be walking back out the door, into the sunshine.
Jennifer Noel, LCSW, is a clinical trainer and writer of memoir and personal essays. She is at work on a novel. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ