Pull The Other One: Overcoming Dental Phobia
"Are you serious?"
It's a rainy Wednesday afternoon and I am in full meltdown mode. I stare at the woman across the pamphlet-topped desk which separates the reception team from people who may be on the edge of hysteria. People like me.
She repeats herself, eyes brightly sympathetic. "Sorry, we aren't currently taking on any NHS patients. You can join the waiting list, but there's around 200 people on it at the moment."
I am at the dentist. It's my first appointment in ten years (I know, gross) and this is not the triumphant finale I had spent days, weeks, months and years psyching myself up for.
The receptionist flashes me a pearly white smile. "You can choose to go private. A checkup is £50, and I can put you in for tomorrow afternoon?"
Her teeth look fake; there's something plastic-like and unreal about them. She speaks with a lisp as though they don't quite fit in her mouth. Is this a good advert for a dental surgery? Behind my eyes I see my future self wandering the streets of Manchester with receeding gums, and feel my panic levels rising. I can't afford to be choosy.
"What time would the appointment be?" I ask, although my anxiety is so high that I know I'll take five o'clock in the morning if she offers it to me.
Are you fucking kidding me?
* * *
This situation is entirely my own doing. Years of being a broke student and later a broke early-twentysomething left me ill-equipped to effectively budget for medical care. By the time my life (and by extension my bank account) had stabilised, I was so utterly terrified of what going to the dentist would involve that every attempted registration at a surgery involved an excuse, a panic attack or a combination of the two.
A responsible adult could see the longterm benefits of responsible and regular toothcare. However, all I could see was the invoice unfurling like a dead sea scroll as the dentist prodded my cracked and blackened mouth-digits, making a note of which ones needed to be extracted. There would be a scolding, a Slenderman figure in a white lab coat leaning over me, lecturing. No pain relief would be provided because who the hell was I, thinking I deserved to be relieved of my pain? Nope. No way was going to the dentist worth all of that.
And then I accidentally hit myself in the face with my electric toothbrush and chipped my front tooth.
Over the last six months my anxiety snowballed, gnawing at me, keeping me up at night with phantom pains and the certainty that I was about to lose my two front teeth. How quickly could I find a replacement pair? Christmas was so far away. I was going to have to learn to smile with my mouth closed. Friends offered their reassurance, but when I looked in the mirror I saw the pit of Sarlacc staring back at me.
I chewed these thoughts over and over as I avoided eating apples or other dangerously crunchy foods. I ran my tongue over my teeth almost constantly, checking for changes. Yesterday, I just couldn't take it any more. I frogmarched myself onto the bus and made my way to the surgery.
* * *
I had all of two hours sleep last night, waking at 4AM in anticipation of my first real dental checkup as an adult. How many teeth would need to be pulled? Would I need reconstructive surgery? As they cast the James Bond reboot, could I be the next Richard Kiel? What if my effortlessly hilarious jokes no longer rolled smoothly off my tongue?
I slumped into a chair in the waiting area, feeling my entire body liquify. I was terrified, so I tried tweeting about how terrified I was to calm down. It didn't work.
The Jaws themetune played in my head as the blue-scrubbed assistant led me into the sterile room. It looked exactly like how I imagined a dentist's room would look like, minus the bars on the walls and the shackles.
Instead of a mad scientist leering maniacally, there was a cute guy who looked five or so years younger than me. Dentists aren't supposed to look like people you see at the pub, I thought to myself, instantly suspicious. For an expensive private consulation, his desk was missing the abundance of stickers and lollipops I remembered from childhood visits with my parents.
My appointment lasted around twenty minutes, but I'd estimate three to five of those could be attributed to me making a fuss. As the chair reclined, I flinched like a vampire at daybreak. I covered my face with my hands, shielding myself from view. "It's awful! I'm disgusting! Oh god, I'm so sorry!"
"It won't be as bad as you think." He chuckled. "Trust me, I've seen some really bad mouths."
I offered to save him the horror of looking inside my gaping maw by suggesting dentures. Amused, he opened a cupboard and brought out a pair. "These were made for someone who only had three of their original teeth left." He said, showing them to me. "Still interested?"
Yes, very much so.
My dentist took x-rays of my mouth to assess the structural damage. Then he got out that little mirror-spoon-thing and checked each of my teeth individually. "Try not to make any sounds of disgust" I garbled, as metal scraped across enamel.
When he was finished, I opened one eye nervously to view the scans on his computer screen. I was quaking with anticipation, so filled with dread that I forgot to take a photo for Instagram. He gave me the good news: my teeth aren't on the brink of falling out, crumbling or exploding like tiny grenades at any given moment.
I needed one filling to patch up a small hole in my molar, and he kindly cleaned a decade's worth of plaque and tartar out of my mouth. Other than spending £98 on future appointments, having my teeth jet-washed was the scariest part of the experience and I made noises like a distressed kitten as the nurse struggled to unstick my tongue from the suction hose. I'll never eat tartar sauce again, probably.
Between the years of binge drinking and the endless packets of sour skittles and the cigarettes I can't seem to quit, I feel incredibly lucky. I was prepared to be a cautionary tale that mothers tell their children. There we'd be, hanging out in some kid's closet together; Bloody Mary, the Babadook and Red Newsom. But luck isn't the thing you should rely on to sort out your shit.
I was paralysed by dental phobia for years. I'm not magically cured but I can say with authority that the anxiety of Not Knowing whether your mouth is disease-ridden warzone that will eventually lead to your friends affectionately referring to you as "gummy bear" whilst you pretend not to be incredibly offended... That anxiety of Not Knowing is far more emotionally draining than white-kuckling it through your twenty-minute appointment so you can at least know if you need work doing.
If you're freaking out about visiting the dentist after years of putting it off, take my one-word advice: Go. It's not sexy to assume you won't live long enough to see the benefits of good dental hygiene. Don't be a health goth, and don't take your teeth for granted. Visit the dentist.