I hate the dentist.
After a particularly traumatizing appointment a few days ago, I started to think more about where this anxiety comes from. I wasn’t tortured by my dentist as a child, my teeth have always been great, I’ve never even needed anything more than a couple of tiny fillings.
As I lay in the chair, gulping to keep the tears back, feeling equally sorry for myself and the poor girl doing my cleaning, I was mortified by the fact that I could not simply act like an adult and pull myself together.
I stole a peek at the patients on either side of me. Neither of them looked like they were particularly tortured by the whirring, grinding metal sounds and overpowering mint smells and foreign objects stuffed into their open mouths. In fact, they looked most concerned by my sporadic hiccups that were a result of trying to cry without being able swallow.
Lying belly-up with your mouth wide open and a pair of latex gloves fingering your tonsils is one of the most vulnerable positions I can think of being in.
I feel like the guinea pig in a science experiment when they lean me way back and shine that terrible light right into my eyes and tell me to ‘say aaaahhh’.
They poke all those awful, sharp tools into my gums, and use all those whizzing, spraying, suctioning wands. For all I know, while the metallic taste of blood fills my mouth, they’re discovering some disgusting disease festering in the back of my molars, and I never even saw it coming.
The experience is similar to getting the oil changed in my car. At the end of the appointment, they hand me that list of all the things I need to get fixed—somehow, my brakes always urgently need to be replaced—and I know that I’m being scammed. I don’t trust the diagnosis of cavities that must get filled and x-rays that have to get taken and follow-up appointments that really need to be scheduled.
I have this very strong opinion about dental work.
I see it as a privilege, something accessible to me because I happen to live in a culture that values dental care. Of course it is important to an extent, I can begrudgingly recognize the benefit of taking care of your teeth.
But let’s be honest.
No, it is not necessary for every 13-year-old who walks into an orthodontist’s office to be slapped with a set of braces and a $5,000 bill. I remember feeling like I would be ‘uncool’ if I didn’t have braces in my middle-school years; everyone else had them, and they all got to coordinate rubber band colors and talk about the horrors of tightening appointments. Everyone had them.
Just like most of the world’s population lives with their wisdom teeth, simply because they do not have the option to remove them.
I know that for some people these can cause a lot of issues, and in those cases they absolutely should be removed, but for most it seems to be something that is done because it’s just what you do.
I have been told for years now that it’s time to get mine taken out—and that I should really just do all four while I’m at it, because hey, why not?—but no one can really tell me why it’s necessary.
They could crowd my mouth and make my teeth crooked, or get terribly infected, or not heal because I waited until I was too old or…. This is reminiscent of the braces fad. Yes, any of those things could happen, but realistically aren’t I also at risk for appendicitis or tonsilitis, and I don’t see anyone rushing to remove my appendix and tonsils just because they might cause a problem.
I appreciate the dentists of the world, I really do.
I could never spend my days looking in someone else’s nasty mouth and repeating again and again how important flossing is.
I also support dental missions in the developing world, I think it’s a very noble cause. I actually did my part by introducing toothbrushes to the children in a rural village in Madagascar. None of them had ever even imagined that anything existed with a purpose of cleaning their teeth.
I sat them all down in a circle and demonstrated exaggerated brushing motions, much to their amusement. The excitement among them when I passed out the fluorescent brushes was on par with how I remember Christmas morning as a child. They poked them around in their mouths and spit and giggled and excitedly compared toothbrush colors—their enthusiasm was overwhelming.
For a lot of those kids, that may be the only toothbrush they will ever own, and the extent of the dental care they receive in their lives.
That puts things into perspective. Suddenly my fears and complaints about regular dental cleanings seem a lot like whiny first world problems.
My clean, straight, white, privileged teeth don’t have a lot to complain about when you look at it that way.
With that in mind, I have made a resolution to work towards a better dental attitude.
I will politely decline the extraction of my wisdom teeth, and stubbornly stand by my opinions about unnecessary dental work. I will remain forever skeptical of all the terrible procedures that the dentist recommends, and I am still allowed a few tears when the time comes for a cleaning.
I don’t have to learn to like the dentist, but I will give a valiant effort to summon up gratitude for the privilege of a healthy smile.
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