Recently I went to the dentist for a filling in an upper left molar. I had noticed a sensitivity in that area so when at the hygienist for a once over and clean, I asked her to check it out. She agreed it needed work, and an appointment was made to see the lovely Yvonne (best dentist ever) a couple of weeks hence. On the morning of the appointment as I was going through my calendar I remembered, oh right, I have a dentists’ appointment at 11.30 so I’ll need to leave work at such and such a time to factor in the travel. All very ordinary right?
On the surface, all very ordinary. What is extraordinary is what you can’t see. For most of my life the thought of going to the dentist would cause me to break out in a sweat. My heartrate would increase as adrenaline would begin coursing through my body, as my brain rapidly assessed the situation and my eyes darted around the room for a possible means of escape.
I know I’m not alone in this. I am of the generation of the SCHOOL DENTAL NURSE. She of the TREADLE DRILL. She of the white cap thing, white dress, matching stockings and shoes teamed with the red cardigan. She who MUST be OBEYED. She who wielded such power over her clinic queendom and terrified the bejesus out of us all. She who drilled and filled. No-one was spared.
Picture this. A classroom of twenty or so 8 year olds going about their day. The adult in the room, a nun in the black and white regalia of the Dominican Order, complete with those big rosary beads that hang from the waist, swishes slowly by our desks. Sister Mary Rose is talking as she walks. Telling us a story in her soft Irish brogue. We love a story and she tells it well. United we listen. The sun streams in through the windows. Blue sky and puffy white clouds outside. All is well.
There is a knock and the door opens. A kid from another class is standing there. His presence takes us by surprise and as we come to, we realise there is an envelope in his hands. There is a collective intake of breath. We know what this means. It’s a summons. From the ‘murder house.’ Whose name is in that envelope? Mine?? Jesus, Mary and Joseph!!!! And as the terrible possibility sinks in, we are no longer a collective. We are individuals. The fear divides us, and it’s every kid for themselves, hoping upon hope their name is not in that envelope of doom. Their turn to embark on that long lonely terrified walk to the murder house…
As I grew older and escaped the powerlessness of primary school, I managed my way through life by doing by what I did best. Pretending anything I was afraid of or didn’t like was not happening or did not apply to me. So that meant ignoring any signs my teeth may need treatment and hoping it would all go away. Keeping this a secret and feeding the fear.
Twelve years later and I’m living in Auckland, flouting convention in a ‘mixed flat’. It’s 1967 and we are very daring group of six. There is a lot of alcohol being consumed. Three of us are at University studying something literary, I’m working as a law clerk, and the other two are school dental nurses. Yes, you read it right. I was living with not one, but two, school dental nurses!! FFS!! Still dressed in their whites, they would swap stories at the dinner table. Can you see where this is going? Re traumatised in my own home as I sat silently while they casually caught each other up with their murderous workaday, recounting how so and so was misbehaving and how they let the drill slip so the kid would know who was the queen of the clinic… At least I think that’s what they said…?
That was it for me and I only ever visited a dental surgery when desperation drove me. Even then, driven by severe pain into those antiseptic waiting rooms with their sweaty out of date magazines, upon hearing the sound of the drill in the next room, I have been known to do a runner.
The terror, the trauma, prevented me from taking care of myself.
I spent many years in active addiction running from physical, mental, spiritual and emotional pain. Opiates/alcohol/cannabis/benzos were helpful. As you can imagine, there were bugger all dentists visits. Usually for an extraction. Interestingly, if I was in another country, the dentist would examine my teeth then ask if I was from NZ. They knew! They recognised the mercury overkill (the drill and fill).
I stopped using drugs and began learning that recovery is much more than abstinence. It’s about connecting with others, giving back to the community and taking care of my self. Which includes dental hygiene. During an initial awful experience in a dentists’ chair somewhere in Ponsonby whereby the local anaesthetic wasn’t working and the dentist wasn’t listening, instead, giving more and more injections despite my protestations, I resolved to find one who understood me. By this time, I had friends who were not afraid and who took regular care and I reckoned I could learn to do that too. And I did. I found one and he said, as I told of my recent experience “that’s because of the adrenaline in the anaesthetic. It doesn’t work for some people and sounds like you are one of them so I will not use that with you.” I cried with relief. And on that day, I began to forge a new neural pathway. The old way was not helping so I changed direction.
I wonder if there is a transgenerational trauma thing going on in my family? Or did I teach my daughters to be afraid of the dentist by my (in)actions and fears? History repeats itself and they avoid going at all costs. Thanks to neuroplasticity (you can teach an old dog new tricks) I’ve developed an excellent trusting relationship with Yvonne the dentist. This does not seem to have made the slightest difference to the daughters – they still envisage a dental experience as paralleling the Bill Murray and Steve Martin excerpt from Little Shop of Horrors
So this is a topic of which we must never speak…