March 29, 2023

How a Routine Dental Cleaning Reminded Me to Forgive Myself.

As her metal brutally scraped my teeth, I quietly gripped the chair, trying to hide the pain.

Grieving the loss of my hard-won good habits, the flowing tears of self-neglect shamefully gave me away.

It was a harsh reminder to breathe deeply and forgive myself—through a bloody spring cleansing.

Until last year, I could count the number of times I had been to a dentist on only one hand.

There wasn’t much money while I was growing up, so trips to the dentist didn’t even land on the priority list. After I graduated high school and started my first full-time job, I was excited to have dental insurance and promptly scheduled an exam with a dentist.

Looking back, I’m certain this is when my fear of dentists began.

The experience was truly bizarre. Bear in mind, this was the late 90s and I was only 18 years old—just beginning to learn the workings of the real world, and to trust the new-found adult choices I now had the freedom to make for myself.

When I showed up for my appointment—walking into a dark and dingy waiting room with worn out and grubby-looking green shag carpet, decorated with dusty fake plants, faded artwork hanging inside dirty picture frames, and mix-matched furniture that had holes in the fabric—silent alarm bells started to ring.

I didn’t have much experience going to the dentist, but I expected their offices to be bright and airy, and certainly cleaner.

There was no one there to greet me or check me in, and I also noticed there were no other patients. The alarm bells started ringing a little louder.

Just before I decided to trust my gut and walk out, someone finally came to get me. The woman was extremely friendly, and I thought that maybe my initial impression was wrong.

I followed her to start my X-rays and while walking down the hall, I noticed the strong smell of smoke. I thought it was odd and had to be mistaken, but then we passed a room with a bunch of men talking and laughing loudly. The door was wide open, and I could clearly see them and their thick cigar smoke filling the room as we walked by. My alarm bells started ringing much louder, then.

But the woman was being so nice to me, almost motherly, and I wasn’t comfortable with confrontation, so I let her X-ray my mouth, thinking there had to be a reasonable explanation for why there was a room full of cigar smoking men cutting up in a dental office.

She led me into an exam room, and I immediately noticed how antiquated the dental chair and other equipment seemed. The alarm bells were getting hard to ignore by now, but I told myself I may as well finish the appointment.

Then, the dentist came in and the alarm bells screamed like sirens, piercing straight through my eardrums.

He reeked of the cigar smoke I saw floating in that room and billowing into the hallway. Clearly, he had been partaking in some fun time with his buddies. The worst part, though, was when he began talking to me and gave me a big toothless grin with only three decayed teeth left in his gums. My dentist had rotten teeth!

I should have walked right out the door at this point, but it still wasn’t enough to get me to rise above my people pleasing conditioning.

Thinking back, I realize how ridiculous it was, but I hadn’t quite learned to trust my instincts and my fear of being disliked overrode all my decisions. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, no matter what it cost me. I allowed him to examine me, sticking his stinky fingers in and all around my mouth. I agreed to come back for my first cleaning—even scheduled the appointment knowing without a doubt that I’d never come back. And I didn’t.

In fact, I didn’t see a dentist again until my mid-20s when my lack of cleanings led to a bunch of cavities, and I had to get a mouthful of mercury-laden fillings in most of my teeth. I swore I would stay on top of regular visits after that, but the fear was so strong that I let another five or six more years go by, until I was forced by the pain of impacted wisdom teeth to see a dentist for their removal and to get another deep cleaning.

After that, I let almost a decade pass and my constant bleeding gums made me fear for my heart health, leading me to a new dentist nine months ago. I was determined to rise above the fear, get my teeth and gums healthy and to keep up with routine cleanings. I didn’t want to go through the painful deep cleanings anymore, knowing if I just kept up with the twice a year schedule, I wouldn’t have to deal with the pain of those more severe procedures.

I learned about sedation dentistry and felt this might be the key to conquering my fear. I took the leap and called to schedule my first exam. Sadly, I had to cancel because we had to euthanize our beloved senior pets on the same day, but when I received a handwritten condolence card in the mail from them the next week, without even technically being a patient yet, I knew this was my kind of place and immediately called back to schedule the exam.

They have been wonderful—the only problem is, well, me. While I’m determined to stick to the regular cleanings—and have—my home-care hasn’t been consistent. In the beginning, I was doing so well. I was flossing and brushing every day, I was wearing my mouth guard every night to keep my grinding and clenching from destroying more fillings and further fracturing a couple of teeth.

But life, as it always does, has gotten in the way lately. I’ve let external stressors take over and my good habits have fallen to the wayside. My self-care in all areas has waned. I’ve stopped meditating. I’ve stopped writing. I’ve stopped eating healthy. And I’ve stopped taking care of my teeth.

When I went for my next cleaning, I knew it could be a little bad, that my gums might bleed some and that I would feel a little embarrassed. I wasn’t scared, though, and didn’t think I would need the laughing gas to relax me like before. Even my normal blood pressure numbers indicated that I wasn’t nervous.

But when the cleaning started, it immediately hurt like hell, and I noticed the familiar metallic taste of blood on my tongue. The pain was unexpected, and it made me feel like a complete failure. I didn’t stop the hygienist to ask for nitrous oxide or to be properly numbed with a shot. I tried to breathe through it—to find a happier place in my mind. After all, I had done this to myself. My mean inner voice told me that I deserved it.

I didn’t expect the tears to flow freely from my eyes, reminding me of how mindless I’ve been. I knew it was about much more than just the neglect to my teeth. It felt like a not-so-gentle reminder that if I want to be healthy and happy, both physically and mentally, I need to honor my good habits and routines.

I knew I wouldn’t be having this bad experience if I wasn’t still betraying myself, forgetting that to love my inner self, I must take care of me.

It felt like real-time metaphor for healing my depression and not simply an uncomfortable physical moment I was experiencing. After leaving the dentist, I cried the whole drive home. I let myself feel the grief of my mistakes and forgave myself for being human.

True healing is a painful process. It’s a practice, and this routine dental cleaning reminded me that I still have a lot of work to do.

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