Me, my fear and my teeth: works in progress!


by Dreadnought

This site has helped me such a lot, so I wanted to add a post which might inspire and comfort other people who share my fear.

I’m not sure where my dental fears came from exactly, but they are probably linked to growing up in an atmosphere of violence and abuse where I learned to be on permanent full alert. It’s interesting that they only really started to become a big problem once I reached my 30s (I am now in my early 40s). At the same time I started to have issues with being ‘worked on’ in general and stopped going for haircuts and optician appointments as well.

My teeth were not too bad for years, but 6 years ago, I got an acute abscess. My jaw swelled up in a Desperate Dan stylee and the pain was absolutely awful. I’m sure many of you can relate to this!

My reaction to this abscess surprised even me: I knew I should see a dentist but I knew with equal certainty that the chance of my being able to do that was absolute zero. It was something I couldn’t even contemplate. So I prescribed myself some antibiotics (yes, you did read that right – I am a medical practitioner and I was fully aware of the folly of my actions) and waited to see what happened.

Lather, rinse and repeat at regular intervals for the next three years, despite the concern of several colleagues who are oral surgeons. Eventually I started walking the long way round to avoid the maxillofacial department because I knew they’d be sure to try and treat me. Some of them can run really fast, so bolting for the exit was not really an option.

Three years ago, the abscess recurred and with it came an irregular heartbeat. I got really scared. It became clear that I was going to have to get my teeth treated properly, especially since my old fillings were obviously starting to give up the ghost. I knew this might mean more abscesses. So I went for a course of cognitive behaviour therapy. It didn’t work miracles, but I learned several techniques for putting my terror to one side and I was able to visit a dentist to have the abscessed tooth extracted and some fillings re-done. I was a mess, but I muddled through it.

The situation with my teeth was far from ideal, though. I did want to have regular check-ups, but somehow could not bring myself to attend for them. And then in November of last year, my hand was forced by a familiar feeling of pressure in one of my back teeth, which steadily became a definite toothache, which then took on the distinctive skull-lifting quality of – yes – an abscess.

This time I had treatment within 12 hours of the onset of pain. What enabled me to go? Funnily enough, when the toothache started, I had been reading a book about personal boundaries. The theme of the book was all about being proactive, about looking after yourself by deciding in a considered fashion how to respond to the behaviour of others. For the first time, I realised that it was up to me to take care of myself well, and if the behaviour of others was not acceptable to me, then I could legitimately choose not to endure it. This sounds awfully simple, but it was a very novel and profound notion for me. It was my mantra when looking for the right dentist.

After seeing several dental practitioners, I did find one I liked well enough to undergo treatment with. He did not expect me to trust him from the get-go, rather he realised that my trust was something he would need to earn through attentiveness, kindness and honesty. He has been very patient, and since November, I have had fillings, a wisdom tooth extraction, root canal treatment and now even a dental implant performed by him. All of these have been completely pain-free and mostly untraumatic (I say mostly because so far I still have stabs of sheer terror when I first walk into the room and lie in the chair).

Since I know that he listens to me and treats me with respect, I can be brave and communicate my boundaries to him (for example I experience quite severe ‘tongue anxiety’ and this can be an issue during longer treatments). Like any relationship, the dentist-patient one benefits from a bit of effort on both sides!

To my fellow dental phobics, I’d encourage you to be aware of your boundaries, and to practice communicating them to your dentist as well as you can. No relationship is perfect, but a basic rapport has to be there to give you something to build on, so don’t be afraid to shop around until you find a dentist with the right potential. Remember that you’re not at anybody’s mercy – you are entitled to have a say in what treatment is carried out on your teeth. Bad stuff does happen, but you don’t have to let it happen to you.

I haven’t been cured of my phobia, and doubt that I ever will be (although I do live in hope), so I’m sure I’ll be asking for your support for future dental appointments. But I want to make the point that fear doesn’t necessarily have to stop us having the treatment we need. And by the way, since having all these recent dental treatments, I have also started going to the hairdresser and optician again. I don’t enjoy it much, but I keep my eyes on the prize: reasonably healthy teeth, great hair and glasses I can see out of!

Story 13 of 24

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