I don’t like going to the dentist.
In fact, I’m terrified of the dentist.
Such is my fear of the dentist and having work done on my teeth that my last visit was over 12 years ago.
I understand that a trip to the dentist is not high on the ‘top 10 things I love doing’ list for most people, but they go. I on the other hand let some bad experiences, that happened a long time ago, sow the seed of fear in me. That seed of fear grew over time as I told myself the same (misconceived) story again and again. The result: a pathological and irrational fear of all things dental.
I therefore avoided going to the dentist, until recently when I got toothache.
The toothache hurt but I waited (2-weeks); waited to see if it would magically go away by itself. It didn’t. I was boxed into a corner. The pain was getting worse. I had no choice. I had to see a dentist.
Over the years I’ve learned to break large tasks (including tasks I’m fearful of) down into small steps, as the steps on their own seem less intimidating. So I went to my local dentist and made an appointment (Step 1 complete).
The next day I saw the dentist (Step 2).
The price of ignoring things
Having spent the last 12 years ignoring the little voice in my head that kept telling me that I really ought to go to the dentist, it was not surprising that when I went I was told that my teeth were not in good shape. To be precise, I have major gum disease and the toothache was the result of a loosened tooth, caused by that gum disease, where the nerves etc. had become exposed.
The diagnosis: full deep clean of the mouth, on-going frequent hygienist visits, new oral hygiene regime at home, and one tooth to be taken out (maybe more).
The cause (was twofold and obvious): poor dental hygiene, including not visiting a dentist regularly, and smoking.
That was the price to pay for ignoring that little voice that kept nagging me to go, and listening to that big booming voice of fear instead.
I was terrified. The thought of having to go back, again, to get my teeth cleaned and (gulp) have a tooth extracted filled me with fear. I was already imagining a scene from the operating theatre on HMS Trafalgar.
It had to be done though. The pain (of the toothache) had become such that I needed to get treatment. It was time to man up.
Three days later I went back to the dentist and had the treatment. I won’t lie, it wasn’t pleasant but it was bearable. My dentist was great.
An opportunity for change
It always amazes me how painful situations often hold wonderful opportunities for change and growth. This was no different.
When I had the tooth extracted the dentist gave me a list of instructions to follow, to ensure everything healed properly. I asked about smoking, only to be told that the recommendation was no smoking for 3-5 days.
This was my chance I thought to myself; so on the way home I bought some patches, stuck them on, and haven’t had a cigarette since. I have tried giving up before (unsuccessfully) but I do know that these types of ‘opportunity’ to give up are rare, so I grabbed this one. It’s been tough but as I write this it has now been a week, and by the time you read this hopefully it will be more like 3-weeks.
Having a tooth out presented me with a golden opportunity to make a huge change in my life.
In addition there were a number of smaller things that I noticed as I recuperated. The first was around eating. Eating just after having had a tooth taken out is difficult. I found that I could only eat small mouthfuls of food and that I had to chew carefully. At first this was frustrating and then it hit me: this presented a perfect opportunity to practice mindful eating. And so I did.
I returned to work pretty quickly after the extraction where it became very apparent that talking too much caused pain. Again, I thought to myself this is the perfect opportunity to practice mindful talking. So I told colleagues in the office that I wouldn’t be saying much for a few days but that what I did say would be very considered. This turned into a wonderful exercise in being mindful and succinct.
This experience has taught me a number of things.
The first is that just because you ignore something (like going to the dentist) doesn’t mean it will go away forever. There is always a price to pay, particularly with health.
The second is that we are capable of much more than we think. I had been gripped by fear and didn’t think I’d ever be able to go to the dentist, let alone have the work done. I did though, and it wasn’t that bad. Fear always tells us it is going to be much worse than it actually is.
And then, there were the surprises.
Eating mindfully and talking mindfully helped me to slow down, to be in the moment; all the result of a visit to the dentist.
And finally, the big one; for whatever reason, this whole experience presented me with a golden opportunity to stop smoking. Who knows whether I’ll stop for good; it is my intention. For now though I’m taking it a day at a time, and I am grateful for the opportunity that was given to me, together with the courage to change.