Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Lessons Learned

If it was an object lesson, I could have done without it. Really. Does every meaningful life lesson have to be taught by Caligula? Couldn't realizations come to me via a Fuzzy-Bunny-O'gram? Nope, I've got to get Cruella De' Ville.

So you've gathered I'm home and alive. Two facts that surprise me. Joe pried me out of the apartment with great force and little patience. You see he isn't afraid of the dentist, not big strong Joe, so he doesn't really get my slow descent into fear and depression whenever I have to set an appointment. I know I am going to die on the chair. I know each moment is my last as we travel up to Richmond Hill to see my dentist.

Fears, even irrational ones, are fears. They are real. They cannot be explained away. Fear is the emotional version of nausia - affecting every part of the body. Growing with breath, filling the mouth first with liquid, then drying it completely out. Nothing is the same when frightened. Words are heard differently. Distance is experienced differently. It needs respecting, fear does.

This trip I knew I was having two teeth pulled. TWO. 2. II. I am trying to make light of it here but I am deathly afraid of dentists and have always known that I would die on the chair.

From whence stems this fear?

Oh, I know.

Growing up in Salmo we were not a wealthy family. We got by. My parents did everything they could to make the money stretch as far as it could. Dentistry then, like dentistry now, was expensive. As we lived near the border, my mother investigated and found that there was a discount dentist, speciallizing in children setting up practice just south of the border in a place called Metalaine Falls. On a trip down she met with him, liked him, and booked us in.

Now firstly, isn't the two word phrase 'discount dentist' one that strikes terror into your wee heart?

Well imagine him.

Imagine what he looked like.

Close your eyes, feel a touch of dental anxiety and picture him.

He was a tall skinny man with very long fingers. He had wrinkles on his face that ran up and down, not side to side. There were two deep lines around his mouth, like his own teeth were bracketed by disapproval. He didn't like parents to be present. He spoke in an accent. I don't know what accent it was, but if I heard it again, I'd probably throw up.

He taught me what dentists did. He taught me how dentists were. He gave me my first lessons in fear and pain and force. His long fingers would pin your arm down, even when he wasn't doing anything. He muttered little threats about 'slipping' if we screamed or squirmed.

Mother was always so grateful that the nice dentist was discount that I never said anything. Didn't feel that what I would have said would have mattered anyways. So I just learned to be very, very frightened.

I've been going to the same dentist for years, although that's deceiving because I often go 5 to 10 years between visits. I go when I have to go. This guy has never hurt me, never rushed me, tells me what he's doing, asks me permission. This guy is as gentle as the other man was barbaric. I picked my denstist because he had a reputation for treating people with intellectual disabilities who were afraid of dentists, doctors and white coats. The rumours were true, he is an exceptional man.

But no matter.

Because first lessons are first lessons.

I remember fear every time I go to the dentist.

Because my first dentist taught me this.

One of the jobs I have is to do intake for an organization. Those I see are referred for serious behaviours and comprehensive treatment. I'm always very, very, careful on those intakes. Because I'm introducing treatment to them. I'm representing professionals. It is my goal to get information but it's also my goal that they learn that they can set their fears aside.

Because first contact has a way of also becoming every contact thereafter.

One day we showed up for an appointment. My brother and I frozen, yet sweating, in the back seat. My mother with cash in her wallet. We parked in front of the building and entered, ready to climb the stairs to the office. It seemed very different. And it was. There was no one there, the building was set up for several small offices. All had been boarded up except the dentists office. But it too was gone. No sign of life anywhere. No note on the door. No explanation.

Crossing the road to the drug store for information, we met with a scandalized clerk who told us that the dentist had not been a dentist. He'd been some guy who just set up shop, no qualifications, no experience or expertise. The police had showed up to arrest him but he had disappeared. It was like he knew that they were coming. An investigation showed that he was cruel in his practice. Some boy had come forward and talked, some mother had listened, an investigation had discovered the fraud. But he was gone.

The damage had been done. He knew to prey on families who were poor, who would be grateful for his 'charity' in providing affordable dental care. He knew he could intimidate children, especially the children of poor families, children used to lack of voice, children who grew up second rate, children who knew their place.

He probably anticipated that one day, one child would talk.

But there were thousands, like me, like my brother, who wouldn't. He built his practice upon the bedrock of subservience. All it took was one voice. That's all.

One voice.


rickismom said...

WOW. The power of one voice. Never thought of that.

I Have arelative who is also petrified of dentists... litterally ran away in the middle (from fear, not pain.)Hadn't been back in years. Now he thank- G-d is getting his rotten teeth taken care of. (His fiancee threatened: no dentist, no wedding.)

At least you GO, in spite of the fear.

I go to the dentist because ONCE I had a terrible keeps-you-up-all-night (even with narcotic pain-killer) toothache. Fear of a repeat is enough to propell me twice-yearly to the dentist.

Anonymous said...

That is so chilling. I'm so sorry for you, your brother and all the children who had that done to them. Well done to that one voice and the parent who listened whoever they were. And well done to you for going to your appointment-how could you not be frightened.

Heike Fabig said...

I hear you Dave. I have been there, exactly there. The only thing that pulled me through it was hypnotherapy. Scrambled up the associations and memories, and now, although not comfortable, i can do the denitst. I'm off on Friday to get two wisdom teeth pulled (one broken one done some weeks ago and now the rest must come otu). I will think of you when in the chair - i don't think i could face having this done without having had the hypnotherapy. I have to seriously recommned you look into this.
Do you remember the guys' name? Was he ever caught?

Anonymous said...

wow Dave that is dreadful. Thank goodness I read this just after coming home from the dentist for emergency treatment and not before! Like you I don't like dentists but I've got horrendous teeth so make myself go every six months. My current dentist is wonderfully gentle unlike the previous one who was nicknamed "the butcher." Getting your teeth pulled though - ouch!


Anonymous said...

Oh Dave, my heart breaks for you and all children who were and are exposed to violence and threats, of any kind.

When I was growing up, we had a dentist that was never finished with you. My sister and I would be going back for so many appointments, the experience lasted year round. He would fill a tooth and stretch it out for at least 3 appontments. My parents didn't realize that this wasn't normal, until a family friend told them it was not right.

Now, I make myself go to the dentist every six months, because I know that if I skip, I won't go for years. I also do everything known to humankind to keep my gums healthy, hoping to ward off major problems with my gums and teeth. I hate having someone work in my mouth, I just know that I will choke.

I am glad that you got through your appointment yesterday.

Unknown said...

I think I know where he went... my home town! Had to be the same guy... he didn't believe children really felt pain, so novicaine was used sparingly. We had appt after appt to "repair" the same tooth over and over. The guy evenutally brought up on charges for using the novicaine for himself...and probably other pain meds as well.

I hate dentists to this day. Don't trust them one bit. I go every 6 months...but sweat and shake during the cleaning. Root canals send me over the edge.

I with ya on this one!

Kei said...

I remember the fears of my childhood; sometimes they pop up on me unexpectedly.

As for dentists, I've been lucky in my adulthood. It's been difficult at times due to moves to new places, and when I first moved here I saw one that evoked all the old fears and created new anxieties. I quickly found someone else who later retired. I now drive an hour 15 minutes to my beloved dentist, who is so awesome that my husband actually looks forward to going to see him~ and my hubby was one who broke into a sweat when even thinking of having to go to a dentist.

theknapper said...

And now you have your voice & it is LOUD & STRONG & PASSIONATE & WISE.

Terri said...

I gave you a blog award--not sure if the icon is your style, but do love your blog. Pass it on!

John R. said...

...lo and behold...there are more and more holistic and gentle dentists out there! There is no excuse for the horror you experienced early on but teeth are SO important.

I am thinking of all the people I support who lived in institutions at one time or another and the level of dentistry they received was similar to your early virtue of an intellectual disability I cannot even count the thousands of teeth that were unneccessarily pulled, filled etc....TOO MANY people with intellectual disabilities still need pre-medication before dentists visits up to and including getting knocked-out! All because some people in our terrible history thought that teeth were apparently insignificant and unimportant in the scheme of a person's overall care and treatment.

Our teeth and overall good dental care is so important to us all. I hope that time will assuage your fear of the dentist. Sorry you have that phobia and terror.

Anonymous said...

You just described my childhood except for one thing, there was no dental care. I was an adult and paid for my first dental visit myself. As a child I was so envious of my classmates who had braces that I made fake ones for myself with paperclips. I knew that I was not worthy of braces or dentists. I would gladly have suffered the pain of dentistry.
I guess we all have our scars, our pain, and our fear of pain. I became a nurse thirty years ago to care for people, I think because no one cared for me.

Shan said...

Oh man that makes me feel sick, a psycho sadistic 'dentist' preying on children.

Man, it sucks that that happened to you.

Anonymous said...

first contact has a way of also becoming every contact thereafter.

that should be engraved on the hearts of everyone in human services.

Anonymous said...

"It is my goal to get information but it's also my goal that they learn that they can set their fears aside."

oh, how I wish more people in that position would take a moment to remember their fears in those moments. How much more welcoming the world will be. Thank you for being unafraid of self-reflection, of making the personal professional. It all comes down to the common humanity of it all...