Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t been to the dentist for over a decade. I can’t even tell you how much over a decade because as a teenager I started to refuse to go, and I can’t remember exactly when my parents stopped fighting my tears. I also have to confess, that other than an occasional boost of motivation I was never great at looking after my teeth. They are not dreadful and I do clean them, but as a 5 year old with the brushing teeth challenge sheet I may have cheated and probably not learnt the lesson I was meant to.
Honestly I don’t have much of an excuse except for the fact that everything surrounding my teeth, things in my mouth (exc. food), and dentists freaked me out to the extent that a year ago I had a panic attack in a pub restaurant explaining my memories of the dentist to my family. I couldn’t breathe thinking about it. I would get suspicious of my husband driving towards somewhere I knew there was a dentist incase I was about to be forcibly carried in. It was also only until a couple of years ago, and then mainly confirmed during and post-labour, that my needle phobia had primarily originated in my dentist phobia.
This is my story…
First memory: being young enough that it’s all a little blurry. Being led into the dentists room and seeing a large number of shining, spiky and sharp objects laid out on the table. The nurse/dentist comes over and points out a number of particularly scary ones, picking a few up and showing me the drill in the light. There was no “this won’t hurt” or “this is how it works and what we do, don’t be scared”. There was just sharp things that were intended to stab and drill and poke into my mouth.
Second memory: (I apparently had an infection which set in as an old tooth was coming out, again when very young) at a “check-up” being challenged to breathe in and out of a large balloon to see if I could fit it all in. The dentist and people in front of me disappear down a wide black and white striped tunnel as I move backwards down it having no clue what is happening. Eventually I slow down and zoom forwards to see my Dad. I was feeling horribly ill and my mouth hurt. I was not impressed with the lie.
Another memory: about 10 years old, I have no idea why I needed it but apparently needed my mouth to be numbed for the procedure. Dentist holds giant needle in front of me and says it will only be a scratch in the roof of my mouth. Lies. It hurt A LOT and I was told to sit and wait a few minutes until it was numb. After 15 minutes it still isn’t numb. This means a second needle, again which is waved in front of me before pressing painfully into an already sore area of my mouth. Even if this worked, the procedure was uncomfortable and awkward. I felt pushed and pressured and left in pain and feeling horrible about the whole experience.
All in all I hated the feeling before, during and after the dentist. I didn’t like the fact they seemed to either lie to me or patronise me, causing pain in the process. Every immunisation and booster I had from the age of 10 brought back horrific memories of the dentist. I would shake and pull away, often meaning the needle would slip out and would need to be done again. I even tried to numb my skin once to stop me feeling it and give me a bit more confidence. It didn’t work and the nurse with that particular needle was not that kind despite me saying I was terrified.
What changed? My daughter. When I was pregnant I knew my priority was to look after myself. That meant blood tests, injections, etc, as and when I was told to. I would force myself through them (as I had when travelling to South Africa). I ended up feeling sorry for the nurses and midwives taking blood because my body seemed to utterly refuse to give up the goods, and they would be sympathetic, and apologise, and try their best. After Cub was born I had to give myself 5 injections into my middle, and surprisingly managed. I took a deep breath and just did it, trying not to think about it, just counting down until the end of them.
So that was the needle phobia out the way, or at least subdued for the meantime, but the dentist. I was still having nightmares and panic attacks whenever someone mentioned it. I knew hormones and chemicals in my mouth increased during pregnancy and that this could do more damage, but I was terrified and already pretty pushed with everything else happening in the run up to Cub’s due date.
However, 5 months on pain set in. I had been struggling with appearing wisdom teeth on and off for a long time, but they had never caused too much bother. This was different though. I was getting large amounts of throbbing pain through my jaw line top and bottom on the right side. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a cavity or crack because brushing and hot/cold food was not causing any specific sharp pains. I was completely terrified that it was something really serious, but I was hoping if the wisdom teeth were the issue I could go under as I had during the emergency c-section, and wake up with my teeth sorted. No dentists in front of me, no messing around, just calm peaceful sleep.
I hoped that the pain would go away but after 24 hours it was more painful rather than less. I was taking large doses of painkillers, and knew something had to change. So I made an appointment. My parents recommended a dentist, gave me the number, and I called. The phone conversation was quick and I secured an appointment for the next day. Now I just had to get there.
Dad drove me. I tried to focus on asking about Cub’s dental care as she was teething a little. I needed to make Bear and Mum an appointment too. I was focussing on admin of it all, desperately not thinking about what was about to happen, what could be wrong, what they would need to do. I almost jumped out the car when I realised we must only be a minute away. I was shaking by the time we parked, but forced myself to pick up Cub to concentrate on her and making sure she was comfortable in her sleepy post-car-ride-state. I introduced myself, was sent with forms to fill in to the waiting room, and my eyes were struggling to focus and understand the words on the page. I hadn’t finished the few questions by the time I was called. I walked in with Dad by my side, but did not want to sit in the chair.
I stood to try to explain my fear and my problem. Even when I eventually did sit down, I did not sit back, but perched on the edge whilst we finished the question part. The dentist said he would have a very quick look but it was probably an infection of the wisdom tooth that had only partly come through. I took a breath, laid back and opened my mouth, he took a couple of seconds to look in and then confirmed it was an infection. I sat up immediately.
The problem came when he suggested antibiotics, as these are normally something you should not take whilst breastfeeding. Instead he said he could put an antibiotic gel on the tooth, and that should sort it. Thankfully it did.
Since then I think things have got easier. I’m not sure I’m ever going to be happy about the trip to the dentist. However, I know I can go. I know I have the strength to force myself. I know I am probably worrying more than I need to. More importantly than anything I know I can take my daughter to the dentist, encourage her to look after herself, and tell her not to be scared, it’ll be OK.
I am going to book a check-up for 6 months time, for all of us, to continue my journey to becoming phobia-free, but I believe this is another occasion where my daughter has healed me. Without her pushing me to become a better person, to be a better parent to her, I’m not sure I ever would’ve gone.