Fitness at 40+
Getting to the Root of My Dental Trauma
I spent nearly ten years avoiding the dentist. And now I’m paying for it … literally
My first major dental trauma happened at age 15. I was babysitting my high school sweetheart’s little sister when I cracked one of my mandibular molars while sharing a bag of Cheetos with the toddler. My boyfriend’s mom had written down her sister’s phone number “in case of emergency” since it was 1988 and there were no cell phones and no way to reach them at the JV basketball game they were attending. My boyfriend’s aunt came over right away and sat with me as I held an ice pack to my jaw, trying not to cry, while we waited for my parents to pick me up.
That night marked the start of my tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship with the dentist’s office — a 30-year stretch during which I spent the last decade avoiding dental care entirely, a confession I rank as one of my most shameful.
I underwent my first root canal the day after that Cheeto cracked my tooth nearly to the gumline. There was a second root canal on the same tooth less than five years later when I was in college. The second root canal included a crown procedure that didn’t take. What was supposed to be a permanent crown ended up being temporary. By the time I graduated from college, my “crown-less” molar was essentially a shell of a tooth for which I was too traumatized to seek treatment. Instead, I ignored it and carried toothpicks with me wherever I went, a necessity when one of your teeth has a gaping hole in it.
It wasn’t until my mid-20s, at my husband’s insistence, that I found a new dentist. He was perfect. He accepted our insurance and was not judgmental when I showed up for my introductory appointment with a tooth that, I can only imagine, looked like a miniature trash compactor. There was something fatherly about him: he was older, but not too old, with salt-and-pepper hair. At the end of my first appointment, he placed his hand on my shoulder while I was still in his dental chair and took a second.
“Amy, dear, what can we do to make sure you take care of your teeth?” he asked. The question felt heavy and I wasn’t sure what to say. Before I could answer he offered a solution, “What if I prescribed you something that helped with your anxiety about coming here?”
“Yes,” I said a bit too enthusiastically, “I would definitely be less afraid if I could take something before my appointments.”
“Okay then, what would you prefer? Xanax or Valium?” he asked.
“Me too,” he said, endearing himself to me even more.
The Xanax worked. I had multiple cavities repaired that had occurred since my previous dental visits. In the following months, a bridge was inserted, saving what was left of the tooth that started it all. I stopped keeping toothpicks in my purse. I scheduled regular cleanings. There was a span of time when making an appointment didn’t even register on my internal dental trauma Richter scale.
And then I got sober. At age 34, again at my husband’s insistence, I faced a truth I had been avoiding for most of my adult life. I was an alcoholic who had a penchant for self-medicating. In 2007, I quit drinking and stopped abusing prescription meds. One requirement: no more Xanax.
I tried going to the dentist without antianxiety medication. It worked for a brief period, until the fateful appointment when I learned my dentist was cutting back his hours. His plan was to transfer his patients to his son, who had recently joined the practice.
“We can reschedule your appointment if you’d like,” offered the receptionist, but it was going to be at least a month before I could see my usual dentist. How bad could it be? I thought, I’m fine and I’m already here. I should have rescheduled. The initial check-in with the hygienist was bearable, but she knew me and knew to tread lightly with her dental equipment. The new dentist was abrupt. He started off poorly when I asked about a new teeth whitening treatment they were promoting.
“It works okay, but some yellowing just comes with aging,” he said. I disliked him immediately. Before I could rethink my decision and end the appointment, he was sitting beside me with his hands in my mouth. I tried to lie still in the chair, but tears started to well up and slide down my cheeks. I finally raised my hand and motioned for him to stop.
“You okay?” he asked, ignoring the evidence that I was the opposite of okay.
“Actually, I need to leave,” I said, sitting up and pulling off the thin paper bib hanging around my neck. That was the last time I ever visited the office.
Nearly a third (31 percent) of 1,100 US adults surveyed by Delta Dental last year admitted they had postponed a trip to the dentist because they were afraid of a dental procedure. A report from the Health Policy Institute and American Dental Association in 2015 revealed the second most common reason people give for not going to the dentist, after cost concerns, was fear. These numbers don’t surprise me. They also do little to lessen the shame I feel admitting how long I went without dental care. It wasn’t until last January that I finally returned to the dentist. I wasn’t even sure how long it had been since my last visit. My previous dental office changed their scheduling software six years ago and had no record of me in the system.
“I think my last appointment may have been almost ten years ago,” I admitted over the phone. My new dentist accepted me with open arms and a comprehensive set of X-rays.
The first order of business was two cavities, which they treated right away. I was also sent to a periodontist who has since put together a year-long plan that involves two teeth extractions followed by a procedure where she will “lift” my sinus ducts and integrate posts into my jawbone to hold implants. The periodontist fees alone will cost me more than $6,000 out of pocket once everything is complete. It hasn’t been easy. I still feel anxiety before appointments, but I do my deep breathing exercises. I remind myself that true “self-care” includes taking care of my teeth. I remember the statistic that 90 percent of all systemic diseases have oral manifestations. Dental care is preventative care, a practice that has become more important the closer I get to 50.
There’s something that happens in your 40s, like a distant bell you can hear ringing faintly in the future, alerting you to how transient everything — your skin, your hair, your teeth — is. My new dentist has a framed poster on the wall facing her dental chair. It’s a panoramic photo of a long line of people standing on a beach looking at the coastline.
Sometimes I calm myself by counting the people in the photo. Sometimes, when my chest feels tight and I have trouble taking deep breaths, I imagine there is at least one person on that beach who has endured worse dental tragedies than me, and now they’re standing there, appreciating the ocean. I close my eyes and picture them sitting beside me, reassuring me that everything will be okay, and I do my best to hear the waves lapping in the background behind us.