I like to think of myself as a model dental patient. In my life I’ve had perfectly healthy teeth removed, knocked out teeth reset, and far too many x-rays taken for my liking.
I know that last one doesn’t seem difficult, but I have a unique structure to my palate and jaw that has made x-rays incredibly difficult for technicians and equally painful for me. I could describe getting dental x-rays as an ordeal. But I power through them.
In fact, I smile and remain friendly with staff. I brush diligently. I’m honest about how infrequently I actually floss. And I make and keep my regular appointments for check-ups and cleanings. I love cleanings - drills, scraping, and (yes, even) flossing. A cleaned mouth feels divine to me. They make the x-rays very tolerable. I’m a trooper.
So today when I needed to go to the dentist for a rare filling, I arrived thinking how awesome the whole experience was going to be. This was yet another opportunity for me to be pleasant and cooperative to a group of people who maybe don’t receive as much appreciation as they deserve.
And then I was given an entirely different opportunity for growth. Shots had been sufficiently administered and my left jaw was numb. I was ready to open up wide and peacefully allow the dentist to clean, repair and heal the damaged tooth. The assistant showed me a plastic contraption that she was going to insert in my mouth. It would keep my jaw open, keep my tongue out of the way, and rinse and suction on a continual basis. This was new - how long has it been since I’ve had a cavity filled, I wondered? Did they not trust me to keep my mouth open far enough? Clearly, they didn’t know me very well - I cooperate just fine without plastic wedges.
So I began the experience with slight suspicion. The piece felt too big. The suction completely dried out my tongue. I would not have been able to swallow if my throat tickled from stray water. Both the assistant and the dentist kindly explained that I could lift my hand to request a break at any time.
An overly proud part of me was still able to rear up in my consciousness - I don’t need breaks. I’m fine. This is all fine. I’m a trooper.
And yet, all I could think about was how I could not breathe. I couldn’t breathe with this thing in my mouth. And because I could not breathe, I was tense. And the procedure hurt. And it was taking forever. And I should floss more so this never, ever happens again. And it turns out maybe I really hate going to the dentist. And am I going to die because I can’t breathe? Should I raise my hand for a break before I die? Worse (in my mind), would I have a full on panic attack in the dentist chair?
A lot of crazy thoughts were going through my mind. Most of these thoughts occurred to me in a matter of seconds, but some came after several minutes had passed. And all of them just kept repeating over and over.
Until finally, a new thought popped up. “Several minutes had passed”.....and I was breathing. This whole time I had been breathing quite effectively through my nose actually. I wasn’t entirely comfortable, but I wasn’t dying. And then, I wasn’t panicking either.
I said to that strange, new plastic tool in my mouth - I accept that you are doing your job properly and I allow you to continue doing so. I had made a conscious decision to trust it. And to trust the dentist. And to trust the process. And my ability to be a cooperative trooper just this one more time. The tension left my body. I reminded myself that pain, suffering, and horrible things happen to everyone. Fighting (raging) against them, makes them worse.
This afternoon I am left with a healthy tooth, a bit of soreness in my jaw, a renewed commitment to floss more often, and the safe knowledge that God/the Universe/fate really can take care of me if I remember to trust and get out of the way.