Writing about your fears can be cathartic, so I'm told.
So here goes...
Dental Phobics may want to skip this blog.
Well, I still feel rather like Joe Bugner landed an uppercut on my lower right jawline. My mouth aches - is throbbing, actually - and I still have a doozy of a headache, but all in all I'm feeling reasonably human again. Got my mile with Leslie in this morning without feeling like I was going to pass out.
Having a dental phobia is something I've struggled with most of my life, ever since a horrible experience as a child left me absolutely terrified of dentists.
I was only about 7 years old, and we had recently had a mobile dental unit visit the primary school and we all got check-ups. What no-one bothered to tell me was that I needed fillings. Instead, one morning at school my name was read out in assembly with a couple of other kids. We were led out to a big black car and driven away from the school.
Once we arrived at the dental surgery, we were separated and I was taken into a room where I had to sit in the dentist chair, and without any warning the dentist came at me with a needle!
Well, I did what any self-respecting kid would do in the circumstances - I screamed and tried to get away! From my point of view, you see, all I knew was that I had been taken away by total strangers, and driven to a strange place where other strangers were trying to hurt me! In the end they pinned me into the chair to do the work on me, while I struggled and screamed and cried.
When we got back to the school I got told off for being naughty, and when I got back to the foster carers at the end of the school day I was beaten by the woman foster carer for embarrassing her!
I was in such a state of shock after all that my reaction was to avoid anything related to dentists, and that included toothbrushes and toothpaste. We had this dreadful tooth powder to use which was disgusting, so when I did decide to clean my teeth it was just with water.
Well,by the time I was 20 my teeth were really bad, so much so that my best friend could see I was in a lot of pain. I was eating painkillers like sweets to try and keep it under control but they really weren't working anymore and I was having trouble sleeping because they hurt so much. So she took me to her dentist, saying that he was really lovely and would understand about my phobia. And he was. He looked but did not touch, and explained to me that I that I was facing months of dental work. He said that some of my teeth could be saved, but many would have to be pulled and replaced. He would be willing to do the work, but it would mean weekly visits for several months. My other choice was going to hospital and having them all removed and having full dentures fitted.
I told the dentist, quite truthfully, that if I did agree to having the work done, that chances were - nice as he was - I wouldn't turn up for the next appointment, so he referred me to the hospital. I met a consultant there who told me I had a choice of local or general anaesthetic for the operation, and I told him it would be best if he knocked me out! The only problem was that there was a long waiting list, so my Dad very kindly paid for me to go private for the op, and that meant I got it done quickly, and in comfortable surroundings, in a private room. I didn't have time to chicken out, and when I woke up it was all over.
A few months later I had a set of dentures fitted, and I never looked back. Or darkened a dentist's door again.
Well, apart from once...
I did have a new set of dentures made while I was pregnant with Tara, about 18 years ago, because I was advised to by my doctor, and my hubby at the time was also dental-phobic, so was very supportive while I had the appointments. I got the new set, but they weren't very comfortable, and I was breaking them in by wearing them part of the time to start with. Unfortunately, a short time later we moved house and the box with all the bathroom stuff - including my new dentures - disappeared, so that was that!
So I stuck with the same set for 30 years.
This is apparently some kind of record.
You see, no one told me that you should get new sets every few years, and these were fine, I was used to them, so I was happy.
But a few months ago my jaw started to pain me, and on occassion it hurt enough to prevent me from eating, so off to the dentist I had to go.
I only wanted new dentures, but the dentist looked at the area where I though my gum had split and said I needed to see someone about getting the area cut away to make a new set fit better, so naively, I headed to the appointment at the hospital Oral Surgery department, not in the slightest bit aware that the split gum wasn't actually split gum but was actually a growth!
Unfortunately, the first thing that the Consultant asked was, “Do you know why you are here?” I nodded at her, and her next sentence, after asking me to take out my lower set and looking in my mouth was, “Yes, that might be cancer.”
Not the kind of comment you need to hear out of the blue.
She sent me for an x-ray, and when I came back from that she had another look and then said I would need a biopsy. I told her that the dentist never mentioned anything about cancer or biopsies. being necessary and that I thought all I had was a split gum that needed trimming up so my new dentures would fit better.
The Consultant said there was no way I could have new dentures while I had the growth, and that I couldn't even wear my lower set anymore. She said that if I still wanted a lower set after the growth was removed I'd have to go to a dental hospital and have screws put into my mouth to hold a new set. So, as I wouldn't be needing my teeth any more she would keep them! I said, “I'm sorry, what? What do you mean, you are keeping my lower denture? My dentist was talking about using them as a template for making me a new set.”
She explained that I can't wear them anymore because they are rubbing on the growth, that they would be no use as a template, so I didn't need them and she was keeping them to prevent me from being tempted to put them back in.
Well, that just turned me from scared to annoyed. I demanded them back, telling her that she was treating me like a child, that it was my mouth and my choice, and I wanted them back.
She stared at me for a moment, and then slowly wrapped them in her glove and passed them across to me. She explained that she usually takes them away because people who keep them don't do as she says and when they come back to her and she asks if they wore them, they say things like, 'only for eating', or 'only when we had company coming', or 'only when I was at work'. She further explained that the growth might shrink if it isn't being rubbed by the denture, which is important to know about.
So I popped my lower set in my purse, and said to her, “Well, when I say I won't do something, I don't do it!”
Then I left.
I was so upset and angry that I didn't want to see her again. It had been a traumatic visit, that hadn't been helped by the fact that I had started off at the wrong hospital. I had been told the Oral Surgery department was moving to the other hospital in Colchester, but thought they'd already moved, so turned up at the wrong outpatients, thinking I was early, but by the time I got to the right hospital I was really late for the appointment.
I was so upset by the time I left the hospital that I knew only a long walk would calm me down, so, rather than get a taxi I headed into town. As I reached the High Street I realised I hadn't actually agreed not to wear the dentures any more, so I got them out and popped them back in my mouth, my reasoning being that I wasn't committing to any more work until I saw my dentist, plus the dinner I had planned was not going to be edible without teeth. There was also a number of meals in the fridge and freezer needing to be used up if I wasn't going to be able to eat properly for a few months, so I'd remove the lower denture once all that was done. I can't afford to throw away good food.
OK, so there was an element of rather childish “Yah, boo, sucks to you, and a thumb on the nose and wiggly fingers” to the Consultant as well. But, can you blame me? I think Seven-year-old Me finally felt a bit of control in her life for a moment.
So I went back to my dentist a week later, and had a good cry about it all. She was suitably angry that I'd been treated badly, given my phobia, so she contacted the hospital for me and told them how traumatised I was about everything.
She calmed me down and persuaded me to at least go for the biopsy, and we could discuss the next steps afterwards. I wanted to wait until my older daughter could get up here to be with me, but they wanted me in as quickly as possible – further freaking me out, because that suggested they were pretty sure it was cancer, and I didn't want to face that alone.
I had a couple of people possibly lined up to go with me – mostly to make sure that I actually went! I know myself well enough to know that without someone to drag me there, there was a good chance I would chicken out. However, with three days to go, both of them had to back out. One couldn't get time off work and the other had a job interview. So that was that. I was on my own.
But, you know what? For some reason, the doom and gloom fog lifted at that point, and I realised that, actually, going alone was better.
Firstly, I wouldn't have to worry about making a fool of myself by crying in front of someone I'd be embarrassed to be like that in front of. I'm not good at coping with that, and at least if I cried in front of the Consultant, she would know how scared I was. Plus it would give her a chance to redeem herself after our first meeting, and if she wasn't understanding I could leave and ask for a different consultant.
Second, I would keep telling myself that it is OK to be scared! I could take the whole experience one step at a time, and I had the right to say “STOP!” at any point, to collect myself, and explain if I was scared what the problem was.
Third, I could walk to the appointment through Castle Park, and walking has a pleasant added benefit outside of getting exercise and being in Nature. It has a calming effect on me when I am stressed. If I was going with someone else I'd be going in a car, which wouldn't give me that calming relaxation time.
Finally, I read the booklet called Panic that my Health in Mind therapist had sent me to see if there were any ideas in that which would help. I practiced my slow breathing, and wrote out a coping strategy.
That was the tricky thing, actually. My usual coping strategy wasn't going to work in this case. You see, and this might surprise you, knowing what a shy, retiring quiet soul I am.
When I am nervous... I talk!
It is my default strategy. When, for instance, I have to have a blood test, as soon as I am seated I turn my head away and talk randomly about whatever comes into my head while the nurse does her thing. Jabber, jabber, jabber until she says, “Press on that.” and I turn to see the little white lump of cotton wool over the little prick in my arm, signifying that it is all over.
It works a treat!
However... it could be a bit tricky to do that during a mouth biopsy.
I had a feeling that the Consultant would object to my mouth not staying still while she operated, and there was a possibility of coming out minus half my tongue if I didn't keep quiet, which would have seriously affected my 'coping by talking' strategy in the future!
My plan, therefore, was to ask her assistant to talk to me instead, about anything she liked, as long as she kept talking until it was all over.
I also started thinking about singing songs in my head, and playing through comedy scenarios. Then I remembered one of my favourite episodes of Frasier – Ham Radio – where he decides to recreate an old drama series to celebrate KACL's anniversary. He rewrites the very first play aired - Nightmare Inn - and ropes everyone in to play the various roles.
The classic line relative to my situation comes from poor Roz, who unfortunately had been to a dentist a couple of hours before the live broadcast, but the novocaine she was given hasn't worn off, so she can't properly say, “I can't believe one of my guests is a multiple murderer”. Of course, the whole thing descends into chaos, and I still roar with laughter every time I watch Bulldog getting stage fright, and his girlfriend, who only has six words, but is dyslexic, saying, “Look out! He's got a nug!”
The final bit that creases me up, though, is when Niles, who has had no less than six roles thrust upon him at the last minute, gets sick of Frasier's heavy-handed directing and kills off the entire cast by popping balloons and having the McAllister twins stand back to back because, and I quote: “I'm a bit short on bullets”.
The last thing I did the night before the biopsy was watch that episode. Seemed like a good strategy at the time. It did send me to bed with the giggles, which definitely helped.
The day arrived and everything went according to plan to begin with. I got up bright and early to make sure I got my mile in with Leslie because I didn't want to let the biopsy force me to break my streak. They said in the literature that arrived with the appointment letter that I couldn't do strenuous exercise for at least 24 hours after the op, so I figured a mile on Friday, followed by the fifty minute walk to the hospital would keep me going until the Saturday evening, and I'd do my Saturday mile then – being careful not to fling myself about too much. Leslie's Gentle Mile is ideal when you are feeling a bit delicate.
I was feeling pretty optimistic that I could at least get as far as the dentist chair before the panic and waterworks were unleashed, and indeed I did get that far. The walk through Castle Park was lovely. It was quite hot, and I stopped for a few minutes at a new Fitness Area the Council have recently installed (more about that in another blog) to admire the equipment and take a few photos.
I reached the hospital, booked in, and was directed across to the department, which turned out to be the same place as the first appointment. It quickly became apparent that the Consultant was going to do her own dirty work – a rarity in this day and age, but it didn't thrill me because her previous demeanour hadn't filled me with hope that she would be very compassionate, or patient with phobic people either. So, when the male assistant poked his head out of the door and asked if I was Mrs. Devine, I wasn't really joking when I replied, “Is it too late to deny that and leave?”
It was with some trepidation that I got up from my chair and walked towards the consulting room door.
However, I was to be pleasantly surprised...
When I poked my head through the consulting room doorway, there were six people in there already. This was rather a surprise, to say the least, but then I remembered that they teach medical students and also that you can ask them to leave if you want. I felt, in the circumstances however, that it was more a case of safety in numbers, and if necessary I had witnesses to the horrors to come, so I stepped properly over the threshold and the Consultant introduced everyone. There were two residents there to observe, one medical student there for the same reason, and the consultant's two assistants.
I was ushered into the chair, and there was the usual fussing with the chair going up and down while she tried to get it at the optimum spot for a good look at the launch site. I joked about being taken for a ride, which got a giggle out of a couple of the onlookers, and a smile from the Consultant. One of her assistants came round the back of me and said, “I just need to pop this bib on you. Not that we are expecting there to be a lot of fluid to protect you from.”
I twisted to look at him, and said, “Are you sure about that?” and I pulled a face, and he laughed, and said, “No, nothing to worry about.” I responded with, “That's easy for you to say.” and laughed back.
So I leaned back in the chair, and the other assistant, the lady this time, was instructed to put this big metal 'spatula' style thing in my mouth to pull my lips and cheek out of the way of the consultant, and I immediately panicked, so I put my hand up to the spatula and said, “Actually, can we hang on a moment, please?”
I told the consultant that I am rather dental-phobic, and she was immediately sympathetic. Various suggestions were made by the audience – some more helpful than others. Seriously, people, saying to pretend I was somewhere nice just isn't going to help in a situation like this. I mean, I have an active imagination, but not enough to overcome this kind of issue...
The consultant, fortunately, had more sense, and asked if it would help if someone help my hand and I was so touched by her kindness that I started to cry. The medical student offered her hand, and it had to be my left hand so I reassured her that although I still had a splint on for protection, the wrist was all but healed so she wouldn't hurt me, and actually I was more concerned about hurting her if I squeezed her hand too hard.
Then someone else asked if I'd like some music, and I said that would be lovely as long as it didn't put the consultant off her job, and the consultant laughed and said that she was a frustrated pop singer. She said she planned to appear on a TV show called Pop Idol: The Rejects, and she would sing to me while she worked! The radio was switched on and an Eighties song was playing that both the consultant and I recognised though the name of the singer was escaping us both, so I laid back, and she started stinging me with the anaesthetic needle while singing along to the song.
The combination of the radio, the consultant singing, and the medical student's hand to squeeze got me through that bit, and when she finished and pulled the needle away, I said “Nik Kershaw” just a second before the DJ confirmed it was The Riddle by Nik Kershaw. So, for a minute while we were waiting for the anaesthetic to take effect we talked about Eighties music being the best decade for pop. Then she poked me with the snippers to check I was numb, but I could still feel it, so she had to do a bit more needling before finally setting to and cutting for the biopsy.
I nearly took that poor medical student's hand off. It wasn't pain, exactly, but I could feel it and it was really uncomfortable, and metallic, which seems an odd description, but it's the best I can do,and unfortunately the radio had gone to the news so there was no music to distract me, but the consultant started singing the Nik Kershaw song again, and within a couple of minutes it was all over.
I must have gone a funny colour or something at that point, because she took one look at me, whipped the seat back so I was lying flat, and called for wet towels for my forehead. Then she said to breathe slowly because I was hyperventilating. So I'm lying there for a few minutes, concentrating on my breathing, with the cold compress feeling lovely and a cold fan on full blast at me, and then they had me carefully sit up for a minute, and then walk across to a normal chair, where they had me sit for a few more minutes to make sure I wasn't going to faint.
The consultant looked really concerned, and asked if I was there alone. I nodded, and she asked how I planned to get home, so I explained I was getting a taxi.
Then the female assistant walked me over to reception because I was feeling a bit sick, and didn't want to be on my own. Once I got out in the fresh air I felt a bit more with it and I was able to make myself understood to the receptionist. She arranged a follow-up appointment and then rang the taxi for me.
Fifteen minutes later I was back home, relieved it was over and praying they didn't lose the biopsy samples, because there was no way they were getting me back in that chair again!