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A Tiny Trauma

A year or two ago, I was at the dentist having a filling done. They put something in my mouth so that I couldn’t close it, probably something like this:

Plastic Mouth Opener

I absolutely hated this experience. Tears were rolling out of my eyes, one after the other, dripping down into my hair, and instead of asking them to remove the thing, I tried to talk myself through it. They’re not hurting me, it makes their job easier, I can get through this, this is OK, this won’t last very long. I didn’t want to ask for something special, didn’t want to make their jobs harder, didn’t want to be difficult. I got through the experience and went along with my life.

But now when I’m in a dentist’s chair, the same thing happens. I tremble while big fat tears roll down my face into my hair. And I’ve had a couple of particularly crappy dental procedures this year: I had a root canal in March, and last week I broke a tooth, so there was a long appointment to prepare for a crown. For both of those, I took a Xanax and listened to music very loudly through my earbuds—but needing to do that made sense, because those were procedures that everyone agrees are unpleasant dental experiences. But this past Thursday, I had to admit that something is now deeply messed up with my relationship with dentists.

My temporary crown fell off Thursday morning, so I scheduled a trip back to the dentist for the lunch hour. I forgot to bring a Xanax to work, but I wasn’t too worried, because this was just not going to be a big deal at all. When I got there, the technician said she didn’t think there was any need to numb me, because creating a new temporary crown was going to be pretty quick and thoroughly painless. And it was.

But it didn’t matter. Same tears, same trembling, same feelings of utter abjection and helplessness. I think this is what trauma is, right—an experience that doesn’t leave you, the afterlife of which you can’t control? And this is innocuous—something that is not secret or embarrassing or humiliating or shameful, as so many traumas are; something that is not so horrific that I can’t even think or talk or write about it. So if it seems dumb that I’m saying I was traumatized by ten minutes in a dentist’s chair with a piece of plastic in my mouth . . . well, I think it’s dumb, too, but I think it helps me to understand trauma better.

I did a lot of emotional work in my late teens and twenties, mostly because I had to, and I learned enough through four years of weekly therapy to have a pretty stable adult life. Eventually, though, in the past couple of years, I figured out that a lot of what I had learned was about control and clamping down and avoiding anything that looked like a potential slippery slope to depression. I had learned to “stop it,” as the Bob Newhart skit advises:

I really hate that skit.

I became adept at “stopping it” through the kind of mind-body split exemplified by my self-talk when I was trying to get through that experience at the dentist: trying to *think* enough that I wouldn’t *feel*, using thoughts to deny my emotional experience, which was also necessarily my physical experience.

And I don’t think that these were bad skills to develop when I was in my early twenties. I just think I relied on them for too long and didn’t realize that they were tools, not truth. I’ve been working for the past couple of years on doing a better job of welcoming my difficult emotions, and that means also accepting the ways those feelings are in my body.

I don’t really know how to get to where I can be calm in a dentist’s chair again. By not advocating for myself in the moment when I needed to, I now have a problem that I have figure out how to solve (preferably before I get the permanent crown placed in a couple of weeks, hahaha). It’s helpful for me to have had this experience, though, because it confirms so much of what I’ve been thinking about the emotional work I need to do now, all these decades after I felt like I had figured things out.


One Reply to “A Tiny Trauma”

  1. Ugh, the chock! I hated that when it was done to me…

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s dumb to have the reaction. It *is* invasive, and not in the kinds of ways typically associated with dentistry. And I have a similar reaction to several parts of a standard eye exam, so I can sympathize with you on that.

    And I hope the dental work goes well and smoothly–and does not need repairs!


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