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