To my childhood dentist: Last year was the year that I started paying — really paying — for what you did. It took almost a lifetime to catch up with me, but it finally did. I started to write this several times last year, but I was still in the midst of dealing with it all.
This year, I hope to finally get through the worst of it. So, writing this now, even though you’re probably beyond the reach of any words of mine, as a way hopefully releasing it.
Thirty-eight years ago, you had a scared six-year-old boy in your chair. I was that boy. I was there for a routine check-up and cleaning. I don’t remember how it came about, but it was decided that I was old enough to be in the chair without my mom being there with me. So, she was in the waiting room with my younger sister, who was waiting for her turn in the chair.
I may have been six-years-old, but it was my first time alone in the dentist office, and I was scared. But it wasn’t until I saw the dental instruments that I got really scared. I’d seen them all before, of course, and I knew what they were. I was still scared. The thought of you poking around in my mouth with some of those sharp instruments frightened me.
I started crying, and calling for my mom. You sat down and started preparing to work on my mouth. Then I really started crying and yelling for her. I don’t remember when the dental hygienist left, but by that point she had stepped out of the room .
Whatever attempts you made to calm me didn’t work. Neither did ordering me to quiet down. I was in full panic mode at that point.
That’s when it happened.
I was a sacred six-year-old boy. You were a big white man, with a big bulbous red nose, big black-rimmed glasses, and a big head of white hair.
You got up and stood over me in the chair. You got right in my face. With one hand, you grabbed me by my jaw, lifted me about an inch out of the chair, shook me, and yelled in my face, “NOW, YOU SHUT UP!!!.”
For your purposes, it worked. I was terrified into silence. The dental assistant returned with my mom, who stayed with me until my checkup was done. I was so frightened that I never even told my parents what happened.
Just like that, it was over. You went on to your next patient.
But it wasn’t over for me. I walked out of your office with what would turn out to be a lifelong dental phobia. (I’ve even heard it called “post-traumatic dental care anxiety,” And I think it applies in my case. I was, after all, traumatized by your actions.) Just thinking about going to the dentist would bring back some of that same panic and terror I felt in your office that day.
As child, I had no choice. My parents scheduled my dental appointments and made sure I went to them. As an adult, my dental check-ups became less frequent. When I did go to the dentist, the same feelings of panic I felt in your office that day returned. So, I avoided going to the dentist. Years passed between my appointments.
Then last year, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. My “dental bill” for all those years of phobic avoidance came due. A toothache drove me to the dentist, which was difficult enough for me as it was. Then my worst fears were realized. I needed a root canal.
The dentist’s receptionist was probably the least sympathetic person I could have dealt with at that time. At least, that’s what I picked up from her. She was disdainful the entire time she handled my referral to the endodontist, as though she had no sympathy for me, having come in for an emergency appointment that I obviously “brought on myself,” in her eyes.
I panicked, but I waited until I left the dentist’s office to cry. I went to the nearest stairwell, sat down, and wept as much as I did in your office that day. I went on to the endodontist, who was about as sympathetic as the receptionist before, and said that I was “somatizing” when I’d raise a hand to signal that something hurt. (Later, I attempted to tell him, through Novocaine and a dental dam, what you did to me. He said that today you would have been arrested for what you did to me.)
That’s not unusual. My experience is that the first reaction people have to my predicament is judgmental . “How, did you let this happen?” and “You brought this on yourself,” are usually among the first responses. It’s just what you want to hear when you’re in pain, frightened, and just want to find some comfort somewhere.
Even when tell them I was assaulted by my dentist as a child, the response is, “But you’re not six-years-old now.” (I only just started calling it “assault” this year, and only after I heard my husband call it that, while explaining to a friend what happened to me.) I’ve all but given up trying to get anyone, even my dentists, to understand, let alone sympathize.
This year I’ve endured not one but two root canals, and will have to finish two teeth restored with permanent crowns this year. I now require Valium, just to get into the dentist’s chair, and enough Novocaine to numb a horse’s entire head.
And that’s still not enough. Even with Valium, I’m still gripping the armrests, and my dentist isn’t convinced that I’ve even take any. (Not only do I take the Valium, but I avoid caffeine for 24 hours, so I can feel the full effect of it during my appointment.)
I’d love to find a dentist who practices sedation dentistry, so that I can be entirely unconscious for these experiences. I’ve found a few in my area, but that brings up another problem. Either they aren’t on my dental insurance, or they don’t even take dental insurance, which puts their services out of my reach.
That’s something else I’ve learned. There’s no such thing as dental insurance. It’s fine if all you need are routine cleanings, and the occasional filling. Beyond that it’s worthless. The cost of dental procedures has gone up, while yearly maximum payouts on dental insurance have stayed put since sometime around the Watergate era. If your insurance won’t cover the dental work you need, or you don’t have and can’t borrow the money to pay for it, you’re pretty much SOL.
I’m going back to the dentist this year to finish the work I endured last year. That means more fear, anxiety, Valium, etc. It means that, at 44, when I sit down in that chair again, the six-year-old boy you assaulted —yes, assaulted —will still be sitting in that chair with me.
I’ve come a long way since that day in your office. Shortly after that, you retired and my parents found a new dentist for my sister and me. (We called you “the mean dentist.”) I never saw you again, but in a way I’ve seen you every time I’ve sat in a dentist’s chair. That is, the six-year-old me still sees you. You probably forgot me as soon as I left your office.
I know that you’re probably long dead by now, and will never read these words. But I felt I owed it to that six-year-old boy to write them anyway. Maybe this year, he and I can finally stop paying for what you did all those years ago.