Fear and the Dentist

I'm going to talk about something unrelated to photography today. Well not exactly, I guess it's related to fear and can thus be applied to pretty much anything. Fear is a scary thing to paraphrase FDR, and I'm coming to believe that overcoming one can give you the confidence to tackle others. I for one was, and I guess am, terrified of dentists. Pretty much anything to do with my teeth was enough to raise my heart rate just thinking about it. I think it started in my childhood. It seemed like every time I went to the dentist as a kid, I had cavities. I don't know why that is, I must have genetically weak enamel or something. Even when I was brushing and trying to be good, still more cavities and the drilling and filling that went with them. Add to that 3 years of orthodontic work and a bit of oral surgery to go with it, as well as the extraction of 4 impacted wisdom teeth and what it adds up to in my mind is a scene from one of the SAW movies.

Well what this led to is avoidance. And avoidance is not a healthy thing to do. Some of you may think what follows is too much information, but i'm going to be open and honest on this one so bear with me. In the past 13 years of living in NYC I had gone to the dentist only twice, and to two different dentists. First one was back in 2000 or so for a cleaning and a filling at an office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza. A pretty bad experience overall. Guy was bad with a needle and overall made me feel crappy. Then in 2007 I was on a trip with my family and pulled out a filling with a piece of gum, which I rarely if ever chew. For the record I haven't touched the stuff since. Well by the time I went in a couple months later to get it fixed, the guy had to drill away even more, getting dangerously close to having to get a root canal. Apparently I had a couple more little things he wanted to do but I just never went back. His offices were old and a little scary and he sang along with Simon and Garfunkel songs while he worked. He also told me stories of his father working as a dentist on the islands of the pacific in the Army during WWII. Apparently he has to run his drill with a foot pump. Nice guy in any other situation, but disconcerting to a phobic.

Now at this point many of you are saying, "Oh come off it, I've had root canal and lots of fillings, and I'm not crazy like you are, so get over yourself". And that's true if my mind were being rational about it. But fear is very often not about rationality, it's about irrationality. It literally is about fear of fear itself. And while you might not be scared of the dentist, I'm sure there's something that scares you just as badly. Public speaking scares the bejesus out of a lot of people but I kind of like it. I'm ok with snakes and spiders but cockroaches make me skeevy. I've got a friend who's terrified of wet paper. Another for whom standing on a chair is unthinkable. We've all got our issue to be sure. And I'm beginning to think that they are a proxy for all of the things that make us scared or uncomfortable in our lives. For artists a lot of the fear is wrapped up in self-image. Standing up for yourself or your work, fear of failure, being scared that another idea will never come (that one is easy, it will). All of this is what makes art hard. It's a personal pursuit and praise or attacks on the things you make are therefore taken personally. Sometimes it's like trying to tease apart a rat's nest of wires from behind a home theater. It's all such a jumble that you can't tell where one thing ends or begins. I'm not quite to the end yet myself, but I'm making progress.

To finish my own story, there was a tooth on the upper right side of my mouth that was sensitive lately and I knew that I'd eventually have to go to the dentist to get it checked out. I brush twice a day and whatnot and I know my teeth aren't falling out of my head or anything, but still the idea of going to the dentist was terrifying to me. I'd been trying to eat away at the fear slowly by working my way up to it and mentally desensitizing myself over time. Well a couple of weeks ago Heather and I were watching Band of Brothers all the way through of the first time. Very heavy stuff but very well done if you haven't seen them yet, do so. And while watching reenactments of men getting their legs blown off and crying for their mommies I had the realization that my going to the dentist really wasn't anything in the grand scheme of things.

So I started doing some research. Did you know there are dentists in New York City who will put you out with general anesthesia with an IV in order to work on your teeth? That pulled me back from the brink of fear because I thought, "Hell, I'm not THAT bad". Back in the real world I did a google search to get the number for the guy I went to last time in Columbus Circle and the first link that showed up was a Zoc Doc page for him, so I clicked through and while they had his info there, they also had a list of other dentists in the area, one of whom was a young woman with nothing but 5 star ratings. I had only ever had older men dentists so I thought I'd give it a try. It was now or never and so I just made the appointment before I lost my nerve.

Well I went to that checkup last week and the first of 4 follow-up procedures yesterday. Yes, 4 appointments, there's that many things that need to get done to get my teeth into shape, but nothing major. Just a few small cavities and an old filling that is causing trouble. It adds up to thousands of dollars worth of pain on my credit card but it serves me right for ignoring it for so long. Was I scared going for the checkup? Yep. Terrified. Couldn't sleep the night before. Was I scared yesterday before I went under the drill? Yep. But the Dr gave me some Xanax to take before I got there. My pulse was still racing, but I will say that it was the best dental experience I've ever had. I didn't even feel the needle go in and the Bose noise-reduction headphones they handed me helped a bit too. No way to get too upset while listening to Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. A must have record in my opinion.

For those in NYC who are looking for someone new. Dr Julie Hassid has been amazing and you can tell her I told you so.

So the point of me telling you all this little tale is to say that phobias can be overcome. Will I require drugs to go see the dentist in the future? Yes probably the next few times, but maybe I'll get to the point where I won't need the crutch. The main advance is that my fear is not a singularity anymore. It's not a black hole which I do anything not to look into. It's not an absolute, instinctual, reflexive "NO!" anymore. Going to the dentist is still not something I look forward to doing, but I can overcome that fear and do it. And if that's the case with my paralyzing fear, now I'm kind of looking for that next thing to tackle. Maybe it'll be heights.

Screw that, I'm staying on the ground.