Waves of hatred

I had an appointment to get my teeth cleaned today. I know I’m not alone in disliking going to the dentist. I used to be so afraid that I made my husband go with me, but over the years, and with a calm, gentle dentist. It’s become easier, and I go on my own.

Today, though, was awful.

It starts with me mixing up the time, arriving at noon for a two o’clock appointment. I don’t know how I got it down wrong on my calenda; that’s not a mistake I make very often. The dentist’s office isn’t very near my home, so I kill the extra time browsing at a few shops. No big deal, but maybe that mistake already puts me on edge.

I return to the dentist at two and am surprised when the hygienist calls me in. She is someone new, at least new to me, but maybe to the office; I’ve never seen her before in all the years I’ve gone to this dentist. She doesn’t introduce herself, but simply waves me into the first little room. I sit down, she switches on the light, and almost before I know it, she is picking away at my teeth with her pointy-tool-thing.

I do what I always do when I have to tolerate something I dislike: I close my eyes and conjure up pleasant memories. I think of arriving at my grandparents’ house as a teenager, one of the few places where I felt entirely safe and loved. I remember how hot it could be where they lived, how they blasted the air conditioning and how much I loved that. I remember my grandma taking us to the movies, only she called it “going to the show.” I remember the tire swing my grandpa set up in the backyard, the Archie comics in the guest bedroom, the sewing projects, the strawberries, the little candy dish in the living room. These thoughts take me away while the dental hygienist picks her way across the front of my lower teeth, from the right side to the left.

She makes it all the way across, and I think, “Phew, we’re a quarter of the way through.” But as she moves across the back of my bottom teeth, she seems to slow down and pick harder. It’s growing increasingly uncomfortable, and I find myself unable to distract myself with memories. I make a point of breathing through my nose. She pinches my gums. She hurts me, and I flinch automatically, and she says nothing. The former hygienist would have said, “Are you all right?” or “Do you need a break?” But this one is on a mission.

She continues so long on my back right teeth that my jaw is throbbing. It’s hard to keep my mouth open. I feel panicked. I tell myself, it’s fine, it’s fine, just a teeth-cleaning procedure from a less-than-gentle hygienist. But I can’t stand it. Finally, embarrassed but desperate, I say, “Can you just do the top teeth please? It’s feeling sore there…

She says, disapprovingly, “You have a lot of plaque on your teeth there.”

“I believe you,” I say, “but those teeth and gums can’t take anymore.”

Grudgingly, she moves on. I notice that 25 minutes have already passed. Okay, the top will probably go faster, right? But no, that’s not the case. It just goes on, and on, and on.

It’s been another 30 minutes, and she’s still poking me with that evil, shiny instrument. I feel like I’m screaming in my head, and I’m frustrated with myself for overreacting.

Then it occurs to me, some part is triggered. Sure, of course, makes sense. Some part is objecting to being forced to sit still while someone keeps hurting me, intent on doing what she wants to do, oblivious to how it feels to me. Of course I’m having a hard time with that.

I am listening to you, I tell that part. I made her stop with the bottom teeth. But what can I do? Get up and walk out now, without finishing the cleaning? Won’t I just have to come back?

I feel confused. Frustrated. Impatient. I am in shock when, as she has finally, finally finished with my top teeth, she pokes around my bottom teeth a little more. I feel sick, horrified, shocked that she would do that. I wonder for a moment: can she feel how angry I am? Can she feel the waves of hatred radiating off me?

One part of me is screaming to STOP. Another part says, just hang on for a few more minutes.

At last, she stops. She is the worst. She polishes my teeth, and she’s clumsy and slow and awkward with the rinse. I am in the room, but also lost in my head. When she’s finally done and dismisses me, I don’t dare look at her. If I did, she’d see in my eyes how much I despise her, and she’d know I was crazy.

I rush out of the office, and run to my car, where I turn on the radio and blast the air conditioning. That sucked, I think. And it’s set me back years in my efforts to be calm and rational about dental visits. And I hate that woman. And how dare anyone make me hold still and hurt me.

Except then I think, how dare he hold me down and hurt me.

And I feel the old urges to hurt myself.

I’m confusing past and present, I know I am. The part of me that knows this, the wise core self, the observer self, sees what is happening. That is the self that admonishes me, as I drive back home, not to drive to fast, not to release the tension I feel by pressing down on the speedometer. You’ll be home soon, the wise self says, and then you’ll be safe.

*** * *** * *** *

So I get home, I eat a little snack, and I go to bed. Because that’s what I do. My trauma response is collapse, go to bed, tune the world out. I sleep two hours and wake up just in time for the dinner my husband threw together out of leftovers. Over the odd combination he’s stirred up (leftover pasta, shrimp, corn and some kind of homemade cheese sauce), I try to tell him how upset I am about the dental appointment today. He hears me but doesn’t really get it. And I just don’t have the energy tonight to try to explain.

I think about texting someone who might get it, but I’m not sure who that is. So instead I turn on Netflix and zone out all evening long, intermittently munching on tortilla chips. Tortilla chips are also part of my trauma response.

Nine hours after my appointment, by the way, my jaw and teeth ache in a way I cannot remember them ever hurting after any previous cleaning. And my psyche aches as well, even more than my jaw.

*** * *** * *** * ** * *

Just last week in our online therapy session, Charo and I talked about complex PTSD. I said I thought for those of us with this condition, that the wounds never go away, but they stop being the dominant voice in our consciousness most of the time. And when they do get triggered, after all that therapy, we have more awareness and skills to deal with them. I really do believe that, and I cling to that belief tonight. I know that I won’t end up in bed, eating tortilla chips, for two or three weeks, as I might have done when triggered in the past. Maybe tomorrow will be rough, or maybe only tonight. Or maybe it will take a few days to feel balanced again. Whatever it takes, I’ll get through it.

But I really do detest that hygienist.

CREDIT:Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


  1. oof that all sucks. it sounds like you handled it as well as you could, though – you stayed really present for whatever part was triggered and you found ways to cope and release. that’s a win, no? I think you’re also well within your rights to say something to the office – insist on the old technician, or someone familiar with dental trauma (it’s really, really, really common). Also, do they give you an option to use ultrasound? if you haven’t been for awhile, using ultrasound is a painless and quick way to approach the deep plaque before the scraping.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think the “win” is that even while triggered, I still had some access to my core wisdom. That is something I definitely didn’t have a few years ago. (I remember saying to E, “I know I have that wisest part somewhere, but I can’t find her anywhere.”) So yes, even amidst what might seem like a setback, I can see progress.

      I will definitely make sure that I never have an appointment with this same hygienist again! I never heard of the ultrasound option. Thanks for mentioning it; it’s something I can ask about. But I don’t know why I would have more plaque than usual, because I have been faithful about going every six months. Anyway, thank you for offering constructive options. It’s important that we know how to take care of our sensitive parts, right?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’d write a fucking letter to the dentist right away, I am enraged you suffered this. Also require the same person you know and like from now on is the only one you see, and if not available they call and reschedule. UNCONSCIONABLE. Often others issues travel right through their hands and into our mouths and they can go fuck themselves. Or get another job.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your rage on my behalf! Really, it’s helpful.

      As you might predict, I spent this whole morning in bed (no tortilla chips, however, so that’s good!) I dragged myself up around 11, thinking, I wish I could talk to E about this. Not an option. I would like to talk to my friend A, but no, she is grieving the loss of a friend this past weekend; it doesn’t feel fair to burden her. And I quickly went to the self-pitying thought, “oh, no one understands.”

      Then I remember I had posted on WP. The WP community understands! I checked back and found the supportive comments from you and slantgirl, and right away I felt better. And your outrage on my behalf gave me the energy to call the dentist’s office. I didn’t have it in me to complain about her, but I did ask her name.

      It’s DIANE. Real name, DIANE. DIANE sucks! You are right, DIANE should get a different job!

      Anyway, I made sure that the repeat appointment I have six months from now will not be with Diane. That’s all I was able to do this morning, but it made me feel lighter and less helpless. After that I went out to the garden and pulled some of the most annoying weeds. Yay! Doing something!

      I am still shaky, unfocused and teetering on edge of that strange self-loathing that can emerge when someone else hurts me. But I feel seen and understood, and that makes such a difference.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Wow, great job!
        It’s not uncommon for many, and even those who haven’t experienced trauma, to require the same person to clean their teeth. We are the customers. With previous trauma it’s a wonder you or I even go!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Great job! I isolate myself too then I remember the WP community understands.

        Maybe I’m mean but I hope Diane gets a really stern talking to.


  3. Or call right away explaing how sore your mouth is and never before has this happened, and never again will you see her. So furious my hands shake. Please pamper yourself in every way possible… so very traumatic…it takes such great courage to lie ourselves down and allow someone in our mouths,,,even the gentlest of persons.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It was a really bad dental cleaning, and I don’t think anyone would need to have C-PTSD to have been unhappy with it. But it definitely pushed some of my own personal wounded spots.

      I was thinking today of a friend of mine who was a science teacher. She said that for years, she used to think she taught science and would get aggravated with the kids who weren’t trying harder. Then later she realized, no, she taught students. Students, as in human beings, and she needed to respond to them as with real human beings with emotions, needs, fears, and interests. Then she became a better teacher.

      I imagine that Diane, the horrible hygienist, believes that she works on teeth. She overlooks the fact that she actually works on PEOPLE with teeth, people who have reactions and phobias and emotions.

      I was very distressed and reactive yesterday. Finally I gave up and just watched Netflix for six hours and let my husband do everything–come home from work, feed the dogs, mow the lawn, cook the dinner. He’s so patient with me. I guess I needed that, because today my nervous system is not entirely back to normal, but it’s a lot better.

      So… life goes on…:-)

      Liked by 3 people

      • 💯 this. Everything is about relationship and working on a human level. Diane needs to brush up on her technique… terrible pun! I commend you for being brave and working through it. I couldn’t have. The last time my dentist did my teeth he caught the gum and I flinched in the chair and he stopped. I couldn’t have done so long in ongoing pain. I don’t think it’s meant to hurt so much and I would encourage you to email your surgery. Lots of people are dentist phobic and have trauma- it’s simply not good enough for a professional to act the way she did. Big hugs and Netflix and nothing else is good sometimes x

        Liked by 3 people

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