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How My Dentist Became My Anxiety Ally

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Few professions are as bizarrely intimate as dentistry. If you think about it, who else are you going to let use power tools against you, better yet pay them to do it? Dentists get close — really close. Closer than most of us would really like if we could avoid it. But in the end, there really is no avoiding it, because you know it will just lead to even more problems. So you suck it up and go. Unless you have anxiety — then the whole thing becomes a terrifying tornado of nauseating apprehension. Few people really love their dentist. I’m sorry to say I’m one of the few who does. I know, it just seems wrong somehow. How does anyone love their dentist, especially if you are drowning in anxiety most hours of most days? You have to make your dentist an ally in the fight — and that takes a lot of strength to even think about trying to do.

My dentist, bless his heart, is very very familiar with me. Not only because half a lifetime of horrific experiences caused me to avoid dentists as much as possible, thereby destroying my teeth — but maybe more so because he knows those secrets I hide so well. You know, the ones that involve words like “panic.” He knows all about it. He knows I am a tightly wound ball of hyper-awareness and stress. He knows all the bad experiences and embarrassing breakdowns over the years. Basically, he knows more than a priest but slightly less than God. Slightly less. He has seen me go on and off medications with varying degrees of success, and sometimes the soul-sucking depression and death grip of panic it results in only serve to make his life harder. Of course, he wouldn’t know any of it if not for a long, rambling email I finally sent him one day. I sent it because I realized I was doing myself no favors by not telling him. And I sent it because he is a really good guy who wanted to avoid terrifying me with his instruments of torture but didn’t really know how to go about that.

I am, at the best of times, one of the worst dental patients you could have. I don’t want to be there, I can’t breathe, I can’t think and I don’t care how nice you are — I don’t like you. Everything about it is a trigger for everything about me. It’s a relentless bombardment of sensory overload and terror. The first time my dentist met me, I was shaking so badly he actually stopped mid-sentence, put his hand on my arm and asked if I was OK. I’m pretty sure I said no.

For some unknown reason, he was extremely patient with me. Maybe he thought I would bite his fingers off if he wasn’t. I might have. But he was in no hurry, and that was oddly reassuring. He was mercifully discreet when he read the (extensive) list of medication I was on the first time he met me. But I decided, discretion aside, I was never going to be anything resembling “OK” about going to the dentist, if he didn’t understand where I was coming from. So I sat down at my computer and started writing the longest email he probably ever got from a patient. Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety, depression, anxiety, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, trauma, anxiety, panic, anxiety. I hate dentists. I hate dentistry. I am paralyzed with terror and won’t dare complain no matter what you do because I am more scared to complain than to let you torture me! Oh, and I eat sugar all day, every day, so we are going to get to know each other very well. Lucky him — the patient from hell had arrived.

The next time I saw him I was certain I had made a huge mistake by confessing my all-consuming fear of him. You don’t tell the enemy they terrify you. But then, suddenly, he wasn’t my enemy anymore. He looked right at me and smiled. That gentle, knowing smile of someone who just “gets” it, maybe more than you really wish they did. A smile that said, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.” I was still shaking just as badly as ever, but this time he knew why. He watched carefully for the slightest flinch because he knew it was the only sign I was going to give if something hurt; my anxiety was definitely not going to let me say anything. Instead of worrying about my verge of panic shaking, he laughed about it. Which made me laugh about it. Which made me stop shaking so much. He didn’t pass judgment about my teeth being in terrible shape, my soda habit, or candy addiction. He didn’t make me feel bad about my condition. He didn’t make a big deal about the fact I kept my eyes closed the whole time and never answer questions so I can disappear into my own world. And when I finally did have to tell him to stop and give me a second one time, he just paused and told me a story about the first girl he went on a date with in high school, while I stopped hyperventilating.

I never have to apologize for anything. Once he knew this was more than just your average dental anxiety, he became my ally. In a sense, we are both fighting on the same side now. He helps me battle my terror because he knows the tough as nails act is nothing more than a brilliant facade to hide my fears and insecurities. He can stop a panic attack in its tracks. He can spot a flashback when I don’t even see what is happening. He knows every moment is agonizingly long, but the worst thing he can do is hurry. He cares. He’s on my side. And it means more than he knows.

If you live with anxiety as a part of your everyday life, then what is a rather simple biannual event for most people can turn in to a nervous meltdown. You don’t have to love the dentist. You don’t even have to like the dentist. But if the thought of the letters “DDS” sends you into a tailspin, just know you are not alone. If you are brave enough, consider asking them for an extra 10 minutes before your next appointment to talk. If you’re more like me, write a letter. You can even wait until after your appointment is over, so that, if you’re lucky, it will be six months before you have to face them again. But no matter what your feelings are about dentistry, it is unavoidable. And even the best dentist can’t help if they don’t know what is wrong.

It will always be a struggle for me. I’m still terrified every time I walk in his office. I still can’t breathe. I still want to run. But he knows it, and it is much easier to battle with him on my side. Sure, I’m embarrassed he knows everything wrong with me — of course I am. But I’m grateful to have him as my ally because anxiety is an enemy you just can’t fight alone.

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Thinkstock photo via SolisImages

Originally published: May 18, 2017
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