My dentist and I are flirting with the idea of crowns again. It's our annual dance. Every year, one of my teeth starts making its presence felt in my mouth. It's not always on the same day, it's more of a moveable feast, like Easter. Some random night between New Year's and my birthday, I lie awake with a toothache.
My dentist greets me with a head tilt and a 'back again' raise of his brows. I do a self-effacing shuffle and outline my dental-hygiene routine to him as though a recap might stop the pain. Last year, I got a root canal; this year, I decided to get a crown - because I'm a queen. A procrastination queen.
Apparently an implant is the only thing that will once and for all stop the annual ache. I was open to idea until he talked me through the process. I have no interest in "a titanium post" being "surgically placed" into my jawbone. This resistance to the dental implant is the last vestige of a pattern of medical procrastination that I have worked hard to overcome.
The reason my teeth need frequent attention is because I refused to go to the dentist for so long. I don't have the same fear of the doctor as I do of the dentist. I see getting sick as something that's out of my control but an issue with my tooth is totally my own fault. When we're kids, we're told if we don't brush our teeth or if we eat too many sweets, our 'teeth will fall out'. There's an inherent cause and effect when it comes to dental health. When I was a kid, going to the dentist for check-ups was almost seen as having notions. Dentist visits were for emergencies only and therefore always involved intense pain, flowing tears, anaesthetics, needles and lots of fear. I always walked out of the dentist's office sniffling, with puffy eyes, a novelty sticker and, weirdly, sucking on a big lollipop. Is it any wonder my teeth were rotting in my head?
My first dental appointment isn't a memory I want to hold onto and yet, there it is, filed somewhere between my first broken arm and my last time wetting the bed. It's the memory that haunts me once a year on annual toothache night. I was seven and everyone in our class got appointments with the community dentist. It was a miserable experience that left me with a numb mouth, which slowly turned into throbbing pain. The prescribed Calpol did little to help, and the next few days at school were awful as I forgot about the pain until a snack or my pencil hit off the offending tooth and made me shiver with pain.
That evening, my fork hit the part of your tooth the dentist had worked on and BAM! - sensation explosion again. As I swallowed my food without chewing, I decided I was going to avoid the dentist at all costs for the rest of my life. I brushed regularly but thought that only Americans needed to floss. I rinsed with mouthwash and didn't overdo it on the fizzy drinks. But lo and behold, the pain would come.
Decades on and I haven't shaken my fear of the dentist. I thought that through exposure to dentists I'd have become desensitised. I even acquired a best friend who is a dental hygienist, but it hasn't worked. I hate going to the dentist. When I'm sitting in the dentist's chair, the power imbalance is too much to take. It's similar to the hairdresser, you're really at their mercy. However, with the dentist, there's the threat of actual, and in my case, inevitable, pain.
He looms over you, backlit by that glaring light, he's normally masked and goggled up and you're just lying there limp. The appointment progresses in all its terror as the humming dentist (my one hums) wields power tools and sharp metal instruments; his hands in my mouth doing things I can't see but can feel. All the while, my anxiety is always sky-high as I measure the simultaneous physical danger, emotional vulnerability, and mental limpness. My toothaches feel like a personal failure. The treatments always seem pressing and expensive, and who am I to know better?
These days, I text my friend before I go so I have some idea what to expect. This week she responded with an article about National Toothache Day. My toothache had arrived right on time. It might have made me smile, if my mouth was capable of moving without inducing pain. l