Updated: Jul 3
I’ve been putting this off for a while, but the events of the last week opened my eyes. I can no longer pretend that this relationship is okay. All of my friends say I should dump you and find someone who treats me better. They try to fix me up with someone who is a kinder, gentler version of you. But, who are we kidding? You’re all the same. And the statistics prove it.
Over 50% of people just don’t like you, and almost 20% have anxiety about seeing you. They
call it “dental anxiety” and it’s pretty common. To be really clear, I am not one of those people. I’m one of the 10% of people who have “dental phobia.” Dental phobia, or odontophobia, leaves otherwise rational people panic-stricken and terrified - of YOU.
You are not just any dentist, you are the kind who has complete disregard for people like me.
Like all good phobias, mine is deeply-rooted in my childhood. But, my earliest memories of you were good. Dr. Brenner lived above a Marshall’s department store. I remember walking to the back of the store with my mom and sisters to take an elevator with one of those cool folding gates to get to his office. Dr. Brenner was a warm grandfather-like figure with kind eyes and a playful laugh. He told epic knock-knock jokes.
After a few minutes “riding” up and down in the chair and some bubblegum flavored fluoride rinse, it was time to dig for a prize in the treasure chest for “being so brave.” The most amazing tchotchkes were buried in those colorful little rocks. No drills, no needles, no gag-inducing procedures... just quality time with an old friend before digging for buried treasure and picking out a brand new toothbrush. Those were the days!
My dental history took a tortuous turn after Dr. Brenner died or retired (I don’t remember which,) and my mom introduced us to the “new guy.” In my mind’s eye, I can see his tiny little office and those stark white walls without a single picture to distract one from the multi-sensory hell experience he’d deliver. Nope... “you just sit there and think about your love for Twizzlers while staring at the tray of shiny, mini mouth weapons while you wait.” (Makes mouths happy, my ass!)
Dr. Stripe was a beast — half man, half monster. He was at least 8 feet tall with a hook where his hand should have been. To clearly establish the social hierarchy between us, he never smiled and made sure he was always looking down at me when making eye contact. He was a bad, bad man, and he hurt me every time I went to see him. Every. Single. Time.
Fast forward a few years to my 20s where managing dental care is considered a responsible part of adulthood. Except, as a starving college student/bartender with no dental benefits, I had the perfect out! I simply couldn’t afford it. As a general rule, I secretly celebrated rising dental costs while brushing my guilt away. I went to the dentist when something hurt. And by “hurt” I mean tears rolling down my contorted face sobbing between screams of agony. Yep... time to make an appointment.
When I finally mustered the courage to come back, the shame of ghosting you combined with the ineffective self-dentistry management program I'd employed inevitably resulted in a painful multi-visit cleaning/root canal/crown trifecta. That’ll teach me!
Now, I know what you’re thinking... “Don’t blame me for the sins of my predecessors.” Here’s the thing you should know about the 10% of dental-phobes out there like me: Everything about you and the people who came before you (except Grandpappy Brenner and his treasure chest full of bravery prizes) causes overwhelming, debilitating anxiety. Full-on panic attacks that feel like I’m slowly being sucked into a huge vat of that green Nickelodeon slime...filled with snakes.
Intellectually, I know what’s going on. My amygdala has been hijacked and triggered a red-level alarm that temporarily suspends activity in my prefrontal cortex to divert all neural resources to the survival brain. My sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive as I try to decide between fight or flight, and all intelligent reasoning is gone. From a psychological perspective, facing you and your hygienist in your office is no different than coming face-to-face with a pack of wild boars in the forest. An irrational fear, I know. Illogical? Uh huh. But is it real? As real as the mask covering the contempt on your face.
I tell you this so you may realize that rolling your eyes at me when you read “EXTREME DENTAL ANXIETY” in my chart isn’t a great way to reduce my extreme dental anxiety. I know you think that after I get that shot that turns my whole mouth into a drool machine that I can neither feel nor control, I should be just fine and any and all expressions of discomfort are not only unwarranted but just plain ridiculous. “This may sting a little,” you say dripping with condescension. I think of a million ways to describe how it feels. “This stings” isn’t one of them.
Even though I can only see a small sliver of your face, your disdain is clearly visible. Like I’m not even worthy of your finely honed practice... like you’d rather reserve your drill, needles and metal pokers for a patient who will actually appreciate them. It’s not like you haven’t given me plenty of time to prepare for this. You kept me waiting in your plastic-covered chair staring at the instruments of torture longer than what would be required to push my anxiety level to “maximum.” (As if the drilling, sawing, and hammering in the home renovation show I watched in your waiting room wasn’t an adequate prerequisite.)
By the time my mouth is full of said “instruments,” I vacillate between apologizing profusely for thinking you are a terrible, horrible, sadistic bastard and actually calling you a terrible, horrible, sadistic bastard. I’m in full-on panic mode by this time. I’m reminding myself to breathe, praying that I don’t pass out completely, and wondering if unconscious might be a better way to play this. I’m also wondering about the statistics of dental-phobic patients arrested for assaulting sadistic dentists.
By this time, I’ve pressed my entire body into the chair with such force that I’m actually concerned it may break and I’ll go crashing to the floor head first. I imagine myself lying there... feet in the air, chin to chest with a steady stream of slobber dripping off lips I can no longer feel. To which I picture you crossing your arms, shaking your head, and in a scolding tone telling me, “You just stay there for awhile and think about what you’ve done!”
While this nightmare scenario bounces around my head, You’ve completely crossed the personal space boundary reserved for someone I want to kiss -- and you’re not that someone. Also, I can’t figure out where to look. Locking eyes with you is just creepy, darting back and forth between your eyes and that light with the saran-wrapped handles feels weird, and closing my eyes just intensifies the reality that there’s a whole lot going on in my mouth that I not only have no control over, but that I don’t deserve to know. It’s my punishment for being that “crazy cry-baby patient” you and your staff will double over in laughter about as soon as I leave.
Without question, the worst part is the drill, not just because it hurts, but because it sounds exactly like the weapon Freddie Kruger used to slaughter all those college kids. But this is no movie prop. It’s weaponry in my mouth. That unmistakable high-pitched whine is accompanied by that unmistakable burning smell followed by a steady stream of water to keep it from setting my face on fire and the gross suction thingy so I don’t choke to death.
If there really is a hell, I’m certain it sounds like that, smells like that, and includes fireside chats about periodontal disease caused by the failure to floss while videos of relaxed, beautiful people flashing pearly-white smiles in a dentist-free heaven are projected on the Jumbotron. The “Breaking News” chyron at the bottom of the screen reads: HEAVEN SHUTTERS DENTIST OFFICES AND PLACES AFTERLIFETIME BAN ON DENTAL DRILLS.
One of the great mysteries that pokes my brain in the middle of the night is how we can develop technology that allows us see neural activity as we listen to music, eat chocolate or watch porn, but we can’t figure out how to invent a dentist drill that doesn’t sound like it’s grinding through tooth and tissue directly into the gray matter that separates us from potato bugs.
But I digress. Back to us.
Surely, given the intelligence and education required to obtain a medical degree, you must be aware that kind of overwhelming multi-sensory stimuli can, at the very least, result in emotional distress. I must conclude, then, that your dispassionate attitude is the result of a lack of emotional intelligence.
By the time you snap those latex gloves off of your cold fingers, you’ve completely dismissed me as a nut job who couldn’t manage a peanut butter sandwich. I assure you, I have a real job. I’m educated, resilient, and capable of maneuvering through more than basic life challenges. I’ve climbed some pretty tall mountains. I’ve been scared, I’ve stumbled, and then gotten back up to accomplish more than a few things over the course of my life. I don’t have many irrational fears, but I’m completely terrified of you in a way I suspect you’ll never fully understand.
I want to remind you that MOST people have trauma responses/irrational fear/intense emotions when they think of you. Newsflash: we are NOT crazy. The mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of the body and the face contain 30%-40% of the body’s sensory and motor nerves. Dental work of any kind activates the sympathetic nervous system which is designed to put us in survival mode to protect us against scary or painful stuff… and what you do qualifies as both scary and painful.
You, Doctor, penetrate people. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. The entirety of the profession you’ve chosen is invasive, uncomfortable, and painful. You have to know that creates angst, at the very least, in the best of us. It’s not psychopathy. It’s neurology and biology and psychology... and I think you might have learned a few "ologies" somewhere along the way.
Given all of that, I’d say I’m more normal than the dentist who chooses this profession and has no empathy for people like me.
For the love of all that is good in the world, at least pretend you have an ounce of compassion for people who literally have to will every single cell in their body to join forces in courageous solidarity simply to walk into your office... people who dig deep to face their “irrational fears” after sleepless nights and a steady diet of Aleve and Anbesol because the physical pain exceeds the emotional distress.
A little compassion and empathy goes a long way and are just as effective as any sedative you could ever prescribe. Oh, and it makes you less of a jerk.
UPDATE: I'm happy to report that I broke up with Dr. Cappelen (bye Felicia) and I've been seeing Dr. Scherder and his team at Bayview Dental Arts. After three dates (cleaning, root canal and root scaling on half of my mouth), I realized that dentistry does not have to be terrifying and there are some amazing dental professionals out there. To my fellow dental phobes, if your dentist treats you like a freak for all of the reasons described above, find another dentist. You deserve better. And if your dentist is kind and compassionate and understands why dentistry is so hard for some of us, take a minute to express your appreciation. Not all dentists are created equal and the good ones should be celebrated!
Do you know someone who can relate to this post (or a dentist who could use a little refresher on compassion)? Pass it on, because terror is easier to handle with a side of humor.