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How would you describe dental phobia in a story?

J

jen78

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I'm putting this here because I think it's more discussion (and perhaps even a bit of debate) than anything else. But if there's a better place for it, please let me know!

I'm a writer, and as such, I'm writing a short story for a close friend who really doesn't "get" my fears. I would say I'm about 1/3 to 1/2 "cured" of my fears, just because of the kinds of situations many of you have faced - where the need for repair work outweighs the need to avoid having an appointment.

But my character in the story is just beginning to admit to, and address, her phobia. How I described her fear is that she's had so many bad experiences, that she doesn't know what's safe, or how to create boundaries with a dentist. She has no idea where to draw the line. Does she allow somebody to shake her hand? Does she consent to a cleaning that might be a little uncomfortable? What if she needs work done that will hurt more than just for a moment? What if they want to do work that will probably be more risk/cost/effort than it's worth? What if they want to do something that totally violates professional and perhaps even legal boundaries? She has no concept of how to decide what's safe and worth the discomfort to her, what's probably safe but not worth it to her personally, and what is absolutely not okay. That's a big part of what she's working on, in dealing with her phobia -- learning how to draw the line between okay and not okay, instead of just avoiding the whole thing.

Now my friend is freaking out that I need professional help, because I described a character who is starting out with no idea where to draw the line between acceptable, and unacceptable. So I'm wondering, how else could I describe the phobia? How would you describe it? How have you described it to non-phobics, that worked well? If you're the sort who wants somebody to go with you, how would you explain why it helps you to have somebody go with you, and how would you explain that that help is a positive thing? How do you specifically NOT describe your fears, because you know it doesn't usually work out like you want? I'm totally messing it up here, and giving people the wrong impression, and I really would rather get it right!
 
T

toucan

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1. A persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous.
2. A strong fear, dislike, or aversion.

I felt compelled to look up an online dictionary for the definition of phobia before I started rambling. This raised many questions for me as to whether phobia is the right word for some of the very brave people on this site. Their "phobia" is based on real, horrifying examples of abuse and mistreatment.
I cannot see that their feelings are abnormal or irrational. They have learnt their feelings through bad experiences. It would therefore be extremely rational and normal to avoid that situation in the future. Self preservation and all that. There is no awareness that "it is not dangerous", they have found out that it can be, whether the abuse was physical or mental. Then they are faced (eventually and inevitably) with having to go back to the scene of the crime as they see it. Hence the need for this excellent forum to try and tell how it can be so different.

Then there are folks who just can't afford treatment. Then teeth deteriorate, then shame sets in. The most consistent dread of people who have stayed away from dental treatment seems to be the shame of anyone looking at their teeth. Shame is not a phobia. It is more like something we inflict on ourselves through low self esteem. But it is oh so very real, not imagined.

There are of course those who have a phobia of all the paraphenalia that surrounds dentistry. The tools, the needles etc. Now I don't know that this is irrational or abnormal either. For any other medical procedure, we start counting backwards and next thing we know, it is all over. At the dentists, we sit in a chair, open our mouths and say "carry on then". Hence the many glowing reports of sedation in whatever form.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, or if I'm just trying to work through my own "strong dislike or aversion".

It seems to me that your character is projecting forward to all kinds of scenarios that will probably never happen (don't we all). She is imagining that in every situation she will not be able to make the right decision.
It is to be hoped that your fictional lady has found a dentist she can trust or has been recommended. Would she therefore be going through all the mental torment of the decisions she must make? (Even to the point of shaking hands or not.) Or would she be more fearful of getting herself there, having the worst teeth a dentist has ever seen, what the diagnosis will be and the level of discomfort. It almost sounds like she has a problem with the thought of interacting with someone who she is convinced means her harm.


On the other hand, I put myself through enormous stress the week before I go. The treatment itself is less stress. So that is irrational. Round and round and round we go................!

Sorry for waffling.
 
J

jen78

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Don't be sorry, that was awesome!!

I have never thought of my own intense fear as being rational. But you make a great point... is it really an irrational fear, if you're afraid of something that clearly can happen, because it has already happened? I don't know that there's really an answer, either... or maybe there are an infinite number of answers. For me, is it irrational fear because I'm no longer a child, and I would never tolerate the things that my various guardians allowed to happen to me? Or is it rational because it did happen, even if it has been several years, and that experience did me harm? It completely depends on one's perspective, doesn't it? Thank you; I'm one of those people who's really helped by seeing things from other perspectives, and I'm really glad I got to peek at the issue from your point of view. Now I'm all excited to see what the next person will have to share!

Oh, and the character will, yes, find herself in very competent, caring hands. She's walking a path that is very similar to mine... encountering a couple "bad apples" and then running into a couple who are simply bad for her specific needs, before finding a dentist who's a good match for her. Her friend used to be terrified too, and knows someone who's good, and plans to walk with her as she learns how to deal with all this stuff for herself. Actually in the tale, both characters are me, the fearful one and the helpful friend who's been there and knows what to do... I'm waiting for the day when my primary reader figures that one out.
 
T

toucan

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Mmm...........all this raises very interesting points.
I don't think your fear is irrational. We learn through experience, whether good or bad. That does not change with age. The child is always within us, a switch does not suddenly click on at any particular age that makes everything different. I think we all feel about 3 years old at times of overwhelming stress.

When we face danger (perceived or real), is it that the fight or flight reflex takes over? I have read that when we can neither run or confront, it is the pent up adrenalin that causes the stress. Do you think that this applies in the dental situation? It has certainly applied to me in a work situation before now!

Thinking on, this could be why the waiting for the appointment is so hard. This might be a bit of a light bulb moment for me. I like to be proactive but we are not doing anything positive, just piling up anxiety. When it is the day of the visit, I feel better. Is this because I am confronting, and that is postitive, so presumably it is using up the adrenalin. I would like to think I am confronting my fear, not the dentist! I am feeling that I WILL do this thing today, it is a positive step and it will make me feel so good to have done it. That is a learned good experience.

Oooh my brain hurts, need to wash the kitchen floor or something similarly mindless to think some more. Basically, we just need to go to a good dentist and have our teeth looked after in a tender, loving fashion. Just how hard can that be sometimes!!
 
kitkat

kitkat

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Interesting thread. What you both have said has really got me thinking differently about a lot of things. It is very hard to describe this phobia to someone who has never experienced it for themselves. I like to start by relating it to a phobia that someone could better understand; something that is more common like phobias of spiders, flying, heights, clowns, public speaking...people seem to perceive these phobias as being more rational or acceptable in some way or another even though, when it comes down to it, they are no different than dental phobia really. They are an intense reaction of fear to a perceived threat that is probably exaggerated in one's mind.

But my character in the story is just beginning to admit to, and address, her phobia. How I described her fear is that she's had so many bad experiences, that she doesn't know what's safe, or how to create boundaries with a dentist. She has no idea where to draw the line. Does she allow somebody to shake her hand? Does she consent to a cleaning that might be a little uncomfortable? What if she needs work done that will hurt more than just for a moment? What if they want to do work that will probably be more risk/cost/effort than it's worth? What if they want to do something that totally violates professional and perhaps even legal boundaries? She has no concept of how to decide what's safe and worth the discomfort to her, what's probably safe but not worth it to her personally, and what is absolutely not okay. That's a big part of what she's working on, in dealing with her phobia -- learning how to draw the line between okay and not okay, instead of just avoiding the whole thing.

Now my friend is freaking out that I need professional help, because I described a character who is starting out with no idea where to draw the line between acceptable, and unacceptable. So I'm wondering, how else could I describe the phobia? How would you describe it? How have you described it to non-phobics, that worked well? If you're the sort who wants somebody to go with you, how would you explain why it helps you to have somebody go with you, and how would you explain that that help is a positive thing? How do you specifically NOT describe your fears, because you know it doesn't usually work out like you want? I'm totally messing it up here, and giving people the wrong impression, and I really would rather get it right!

The difficulties you describe that are experienced by your character all sound like they stem from one thing being trust. Somewhere along the road, your character's trust was wounded with dentists and needs to be earned again but that requires taking a blind leap of faith with a stranger and hoping it works out for the best. She is also unsure how much to trust these people once she decides they are worthy of her trust and how she can establish and maintain control in that situation. I personally do not want someone to go with me (I'm a loner in the dental office) but I think having another person there would offer a sense of security to some people and give them the accountability to go (knowing that someone is there to see them through it). Also, people appreciate the moral support and maybe feel like that person can "back them up" in a sense if they are unable to stand up for themselves in a threatening situation/environment. That's my 2 cents.
 
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Steve In Cleveland

Steve In Cleveland

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But my character in the story is just beginning to admit to, and address, her phobia. How I described her fear is that she's had so many bad experiences, that she doesn't know what's safe, or how to create boundaries with a dentist. She has no idea where to draw the line. Does she allow somebody to shake her hand? Does she consent to a cleaning that might be a little uncomfortable? What if she needs work done that will hurt more than just for a moment? What if they want to do work that will probably be more risk/cost/effort than it's worth? What if they want to do something that totally violates professional and perhaps even legal boundaries? She has no concept of how to decide what's safe and worth the discomfort to her, what's probably safe but not worth it to her personally, and what is absolutely not okay. That's a big part of what she's working on, in dealing with her phobia -- learning how to draw the line between okay and not okay, instead of just avoiding the whole thing.
What an interesting question...

For me, dental phobia wasn't nearly as defined as all that. But then, I didn't really have a "transitional" period like this. On one side, there was this big black cloud of fear and shame and anxiety about the state of my teeth, the fact that I'd let them get so bad, and the knowledge that I'd somehow have to face a dentist some day. And on the other side were all the "normal" people who seemed to have perfect teeth and no particular fear of going to the dentist. And in the middle was just... nothing. I didn't have the slightest clue how to turn myself into one of the normal people. I knew it would be painful and awful and full of loss and shame and guilt, but I couldn't even look at it closely enough to see any of the details.

By way of analogy, I just picked up an interest in chess, but I have no real clue how to play. And I think I'll probably be pretty good at it one day if I put my mind to it. So there's both sides of that cloud. There's me, the chess newbie, and there's some idea of me, the chess master. But I can picture what comes between. I can think of some ways to get from here to there. I can read some chess books, find some tutorials online, join a chess club, etc. When I watch experienced players, I can't even imagine how they're able to see what they see-- what it's like to be someone who's good at chess. But I can start down the path, even if it's difficult and uncomfortable.

But with dental phobia, I couldn't figure out a way to get out of my situation. Everything I could think to do just led, in my mind, into this horrible vortex of doom. It was as if I was on one side of a big meat grinder and happiness was on the other side. How do you approach a meat grinder? It's just unthinkable. For me, in that mindset, a question like "Do I consent to a cleaning that might be a little uncomfortable?" would have sounded like, "What if I stick my little finger in and it hurts more than I thought it would?" That's not really a question you can spend much time thinking about.

And then, one day, the pain was bad enough that I had to jump into the meat grinder, and it turned out it wasn't a meat grinder at all. There, deep in the dark cloud of doom, were dentists who worked with compassion and professionalism. And there were options, and recommendations that I could choose to follow or not, and people who asked me if it was okay to lean the chair back. There were questions like "Do I have your permission?" and "Are you sure you're comfortable?" There were friends and coworkers who turned out not to be staring at my awful teeth-- who didn't even realize I had awful teeth! And there were assistants who apologized to me when I gagged on their big x-ray bits. And dentists who actually praised me for starting to brush my teeth at the age of 40. And I could actually see the road to becoming a "normal" person again. It was at the end of page six of a huge treatment plan, but it was a plan!

So, there's been some of those questions, like how can I be sure my dentist knows what she's doing, or can I trust her to do something that's a little painful, or how much money and discomfort is it worth to save that back molar? But those don't feel like phobic questions to me. They're certainly questions of someone who was never taught real boundaries about medical professionals, who was never really told that medical professionals are people who work for me, and not authority figures. But from the similar position of feeling maybe 1/2 "cured" (I hope I'm more like 3/4, but I know better...), these things don't feel anything like the big faceless doom I felt as a full-blown phobic.

For me it really was this kind of light-switch experience: one day I was fully phobic, and the next I was kind of like, "ahhh, now I see!" Not that it didn't take some time to learn some of these things, but for me they were all just little adjustments after I made the big leap.

Good luck with your writing, I'd love to see your story as it develops. I don't think I've ever seen dental phobia portrayed in a story before, except all the true ones here... :hmm:
 
mikey boy

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Great post if you don't mind I'd like to throw my character in there.

To me my character is alittle confused he has gone his whole life fearing the dentist and all that was related to the dentist so now a young adult he has found this great site to help him face his fears and hopefully conquer it all but knows that this would be no ordinary task and that it would be most difficult but he was up to the task that was in front of him.

Like a great wall in his way he knows has to get over it but how and when low on money and working almost everyday to make more money but is worried that it won't matter cause he is affraid he won't make mouth to cut it so has something else that would add to his fear and phobia and what would lay await in the future for him was unknown and a mystery to him which also made it worse so how does end for him does he see it all through or parish and will he finally conquer this well stay tuned :D:):giggle:
 
G

gettingthere

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Steve, I LOVE the chess analogy and may well have to steal that for future use…:wasntmesign::innocent:

For me, the thing that makes dental fear unique from other phobias is what I like to refer to as the non-understanding-understanding issue that presents itself when talking to other people. To explain, this thread reminds me of a conversation I had with two work colleagues, who were present for my Big Dental Meltdown. At the time I was trying to describe not just the overwhelming and all-encompassing fear that is dental phobia but the shame that (for me at least) comes with it and that for years I had struggled with describing the extent of my fear because the stereotypical and media-inspired image of the sadistic dentist wielding his tools whilst patients hit the roof in pain had led me to believe that this is what dentists are, and that this image is scary to everyone, yet everyone else still manages to go. See that patient comically shaking with fear in a cartoon? Well he willingly got into the chair whereas I would rather jump in front of a train:cry:. The one time I summoned up the courage to agree with a friend who said “ugh, I have a dentist appointment this afternoon, I hate dentists”, she responded with “but we all have to go, don’t we. Just got to get on with it:whistle: .” That was the problem. I couldn’t get on with it and was being made to feel worse by the fact that everyone seemed to feel similarly but were “man enough” to put that aside and attend their dental appointments:cry:. I was equally in awe of and hated these people for doing the impossible but making me feel worse and therefore inferior to them because I couldn't get a handle on my anxieties. It was a very lonely place to be :cry:. I have heard people talk about a door slamming shut in their head when they think about phobia-triggers, but for me and dentistry, it wasn’t even as far as that. The door was never open in the first place in order for the slamming to occur. The door in my mind, which housed a (hopefully sympathetic) dentist, was stuck tight. Locked but with no handle or keyhole so there was no means of ever being able to unlock it myself. In short; an impossibility.

Anyway, I was trying to describe this even less articulately than the above, when colleague 1 turned to me and said “but it’s dental phobia. It’s so common. People will understand and support you when you are upset because everyone knows what it is like to have or fear dental treatment. It’s not like you have a phobia of fluffy bunny rabbits. That would be weird and I could understand you not wanting to tell people”.

I felt she had missed the point but then colleague 2 came to my assistance by disagreeing; “but when everyone claims to be “phobic” people with genuine anxieties get misunderstood and dismissed. Like people that claim to have the flu when it is really a cold or call all headaches migraines; you run the risk of the genuinely afflicted suffering for others’ exaggerations by being told “but I came into work when I had flu…” or similar and real issues get played down to the point that people don’t really believe them. In the case of dental phobia, there is a tendency to think “nobody likes it, why are you so special”. Contrarily, if you were to tell me you had a phobia of bunny rabbits, I would take it more seriously and think you must have had some genuine traumatic experience for such an unusual anxiety to manifest in such an extreme way.”

I should mention that neither of these colleagues claim to be phobic although colleague 1 admits to getting a bit nervous about some invasive dental treatments. Colleague 2 is fascinated by all things bloody and gory and actually prefers being able to feel as much as possible as she says her fascination with drills and dental techniques actually outweighs any pain felt and the only thing she doesn’t like about dental visits is not being able to see what is happening :sick::hidesbehindsofa::noway::noway:.

I really felt that colleague 2 had hit the nail on the head in explaining why by their very admissions of understanding how we feel, most people don’t actually get it at all .

I also thought it was interesting, and debated this with them at the time, that in trying to come up with a more unusual fear, colleague 1 had subconsciously felt the need to talk of fluffy bunny rabbits rather than just simply saying rabbits, which is more neutral, whereas when people talk about dental phobia, they tend to refer to fear of THE dentist” thus reaffirming the notion that there is one principle image of a dentist as this terrifying being:devilish:. I thought this accurately illustrated the point that extra emphasis was needed to show that a fear of rabbits is unnatural whereas the redundancy of any pejorative terms in front of the single word “dentist” showed that this is becoming synonymous with the image of a figure to fear.

I should also mention; all three of us have linguistics degrees.:nerd::nerd::nerd:

I have rambled a bit here but what I wanted to say was that in writing this character, and in particular, other character’s reactions to her, I think it is important to note this assumption of “but everyone is scared of the dentist” is a reason why so many don’t understand or believe it is a quick and easy fear to get over :mad:.
 
Steve In Cleveland

Steve In Cleveland

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Steve, I LOVE the chess analogy and may well have to steal that for future use…:wasntmesign::innocent:

For me, the thing that makes dental fear unique from other phobias is what I like to refer to as the non-understanding-understanding issue that presents itself when talking to other people.

Thanks!

I totally identify with the non-understanding-understanding thing. (NUU?) It's actually an unintentional manifestation of a lack of empathy. I don't think most people do it on purpose (although some do), but it ends up stinging a LOT when you're trying to find an empathetic ear.

For some reason the image that came to mind while reading your description was that of someone going through a receiving line at a funeral, and saying to the grieving widow: "I know what you're going through... I lost my hamster the same way." :shame: It somehow manages to simultaneously diminish the recipient's feelings while making the speaker feel compassionate.

(I think it's okay to laugh at that. We have to laugh at the darkness or else it consumes us...)

My wife and I went out on a charter sailboat on our last vacation, and there was another family on board that included a grandpa who was terrified of water. I think he told us he'd either nearly drowned once, or lost someone to drowning, and it was clear from his face that he was truly terrified-- to him, the whole boat trip was just a slip away from certain death. The rest of his family treated him like he was just a grumpy old curmudgeon. "C'mon, dad, stop being such a fuddy duddy! Relax and have fun!" It kind of ruined the sail for us, because it was so unpleasant watching this poor man suffer so much. I don't know if he'd made it clear to the rest of the family how deep his fear was before letting himself get cajoled into participating, or if they just had a really deaf ear to his protests.

I tend to think it's just a dilution of the word "phobia" to blame. For most people it's so synonymous with "afraid of" that I think they don't understand the true terror and feeling of doom that overcomes phobics when they're triggered. And because the word is so diluted, phobics feel they must be overreacting or extremely weak, since it's so much worse than just being "afraid of."
 
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