The no-smell dentist

Pain is such an interesting battlefield. Soldiers of memory, imagination, rumours, fears, ideas and nightmares stand side by side and can create an overwhelming army that becomes the experience. Instead of just the lonely guy in the middle of the melee who is the “pain”, we surround him with extra firepower and tanks.

Association is so powerful. Placebo effects prove the power of the mind, persuasion and belief over reality. Where in fact, there is no pain, it can be sparked, fanned and inflamed. And pain can be overcome with sugar tablets and false information. Memory is also powerful, and easily manipulated to be what we need now, to support either fight or flight, victim or hero.

Yesterday I went to the dentist. For the last 20 years this has been a somewhat terrifying ordeal due to my now low threshold for nerve pain, and the after effects of being shocked by sudden pain I have no control over. Such as happens at the dentist….

I learned a few things.

Long term pain does two things. It toughens you up, and it also breaks you down. Some things are now easy for me which might frighten or overcome others, and other things can seem impossible to me, that other people do everyday.

I remember having ‘nice’ massages and being bedridden for days as a consequence, such was the reaction of my body to touch. Thus the dentist always involved a full I.V. which not only relaxed and sedated me, it also wiped my memory of the experience. However whether I remember the actual events or not, I can imagine what was going on, and ‘see’ it well enough in my mind to spark fear at the idea of even making an appointment.

However, eventually the fear of ‘if I don’t get it done now, it will only be worse later’ was the stronger. So I googled recently and found someone I felt I could trust. I did it in stages. I researched the dentist, the practice for a few days. Then I walked past to see if I had the right place. The next day or so I went in to scope it out. At this stage I was already feeling rather proud of myself.

The first thing I noticed was the not-smell.

Dentists have that awful disinfectant smell, that you can already taste when you enter the front door. Vets are the same, although since I’ve never been treated myself at a vet clinic…. This new dentist had none of the smells that every other dentist I’ve experienced does. Actually there was no smell at all. Immediately I relaxed. I believe that my memory (real or not) took a hit, and had nothing to react to, or grab onto. My fear also was quite silent.

I had a chat to the receptionist and found that she’d known someone with my condition who was in a wheelchair and had to leave Sydney to get away from the pollution and stress etc. Hmmm. Spiritual me who doesn’t believe in consequences was feeling rather ‘had’. How did I pick this place… No smell and already the staff knew a bit about me and understood my concerns.

So I had 10 days to wait for the appointment to come around and after a week I realised that I wasn’t even thinking about it. Weird. Normally I would be constantly fearing the event. I was really busy I suppose, but even I can mutli-task and worry at the same time.

I also realised a few other things at this point. I no longer worry about the future so much, and the appointment was the future. It was going to happen in it’s own time, and then I would deal with it.

My intuition as to the right dentist had already been supported. So was I going to just trust myself.

I.V. is always an option, so why would I worry anyway. Worst case scenario I am a spaced out idiot for the procedure and need someone to take me home. My logic and reason is not so overcome by emotion these days.

I started to think more about the event and decided it was going to be an experiment of my past experiences of, and the reality of, pain in my life. To this end I ridiculously starting looking forward to the challenge… what have I become?

So I went in yesterday, magic spinning scan at first. Actually firstly to note that the dentist was very tall, Asian descent, and the calmest person I’ve ever met. Gentle looking hands (since they were going to be in my mouth, that was somewhat important at the time), and quiet yet confident. He reminded me of Charlie Teo, the neurosurgeon, who radiates the calm authority of a specialist you can really trust.

Then we had a chat about the scan etc, had a quick checkup, xrays, then the bit I didn’t want to hear…. 6 fillings! I think my eyes did widen a bit at that point. However he was a smart man. He offered to show me the laser option (laser beam, no touching, tiny sound). If I didn’t like it he would stop. He started with a tooth that has no nerves.. and this is where I learned A LOT.

With no nerves, there is not the slightest chance of actual pain…. As I repeated this like a mantra to myself over and over, I could feel myself tensing up and remembering past dental pain. There, I felt it. Sharp nerve like pain in that tooth…. Wait, don’t be stupid, it’s all in your head, so fix your head and don’t worry about the tooth. So I focused on the truth that no nerve = no pain. And it worked. Without the fear and anxiety having control, my mind was unable to create the sensation in my brain.

Done. Now he wanted to try on the next tooth. Just on the side. I asked if there were nerves in that area, and he said yes, but it’s only shallow, so let’s just try. I felt like a kid being coaxed to eat green vegies. Just try one… just one…

I really wanted to be brave and not run away from this, so I let him. And indeed there were a few little zips of pain, but my need to go through it was greater than my need to avoid it. And like a kid, there was an element of wanting to be ‘good’.

The other thing I realised was that he is the only dentist. So, whilst you are being treated, you cannot hear anyone else being treated. There’s no other dental noise, except the hygienist. So not only was there no associated smell, but no sounds either. I heard no drill the entire time, which measurable disarmed me.

Done. Now the other 3 are deeper and he didn’t suggest we do them then. Truly I think I had had enough anyways, as I felt like I had conquered enough of the mountain and I still had my clean to go. There was some small tension in my body and I was aware of not being too brave in one hit…

So in all I was 2 hours being very aware of my thoughts, emotions and physical being. It was most interesting to see how the dhamma, astrology and my own journey of pain had brought me to a place where I hardly felt any anxiety. And indeed the cost of IV is horrendous, but the need was replaced by the modern technique of laser dentistry. So indeed as I had looked after myself in my growth and understanding of things, life was looking after me too.

Our response to pain is cosmically important. Not only does it help up interpret the present in a realistic way, but it sets up our future experiences too. We hold in our memory the good, bad and ugly. And in my experience memory either grows or fades, it rarely stays true to the event because we draw from it what we want, to enable what we want.

So whilst I would rather not have 3 fillings to go, I cannot but look forward to climbing higher up the mountain. Smirking to myself about how life led me to the ‘no smell, no sound, gentle hands, and calm countenance’ of the dentist I saw this week.


2 comments on “The no-smell dentist

  1. Jane says:

    Yes I can identify with your experience as my childhood dentist was the evil twin of Steve Martin’s character in the cult classic “Little Shop of Horrors”, so I too have had a life-long fear of the dentist and the associated pain especially the awful sound of drills.

    My body tenses up so much during these procedures that I hurt the next day like I’ve just had a massive gym workout. But I know I have to go back so I do…

    I recently had to undergo a marathon rebuild of some teeth due to damage from an auto immune problem. In fact even after countless injections throughout the day and while technically I could not really ‘feel’ the drill the sound was enough to illicit a strong fearful pain reaction. To cut a long story short the procedure took 10 hours and I had two days off work but what you say about the experience of pain as a tool to interpret future experiences is very true, and is not unlike the pain experience of childbirth. If we didn’t ‘forget’ that pain there would be far fewer people in the world!

    While pain is nothing to enjoy in many contexts it does allow us to put other experiences into perspective. Suddenly many things that once seemed bigger than Ben Hur appear manageable and I find that I can view them in a much more appreciative way as a result. I know when I eventually have to undergo more of this type of dental work in the future that I will be better prepared and calmer. Regardless of the nature of my experience I can now thank the Dharma for my growing ability to be grateful for the experience. In this instance I can be grateful for the expertise of a competent oral surgeon, the great advances in modern dental practices and materials and the accessibility of EPC packages through Medicare, which offset some of the outrageous costs involved in this type of work.

    Thanks Neri πŸ™‚

  2. Aaron says:

    Thanks for sharing. I like how you articulated that awareness lends itself to learning. Good stuff πŸ˜‰

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