Of Teeth and Women: A Tale of Courage in Three (Molar) Parts by Casey Lefante

purpleteethMolar the First

“I was telling someone the other day,” t said, plucking a mushroom from her pho. “I was saying, ‘Lefante is so brave and so reasonable and so practical about so many things.’”

“Why, yes,” I said, twirling noodles around my chopsticks like spaghetti. “It’s true.”

“And then,” she said, “there’s this.”

This, as it turned out, being a trip to the dentist. In my so brave and so reasonable and so practical mind, I recognized this as an absolutely cowardly, unreasonable, and impractical fear. A large part of that fear stemmed from the fact that I once had an unfortunate experience with a dental hygienist who berated me for lack of flossing and informed me that if I didn’t shape up I’d lose all of my teeth by the age of twenty-one. I was five.

Teeth are one of those incredibly personal things that many people, I’ve discovered, do not like discussing. This could be due to the tendency towards personal culpability. I mean, if you have a mole that needs to be removed, and it’s on your face, everyone will see it, but it won’t necessarily be met with judgment. Sure, we could have the sunscreen discussion, but most of the time it’s not something for which people would place the blame on you. Teeth, though. That’s something entirely different. Lose a tooth or develop a cavity, and you, my sweets- and soda-consuming friend, have terrible oral hygiene. You might be all pencil skirts and kitten heels on the outside, but underneath all that slick polish you’re basically a troll who lives under a bridge, eating garbage and using a toothbrush maybe once a week, and only if you happen to find it on the side of the road, in which case you probably aren’t even using toothpaste anyway.

You’re gross.

None of this is helped by the fact that I work at a high school where most of my students either have braces (and are therefore on their way to having perfect teeth) or recently had braces removed (and therefore already have perfect teeth). I never had braces, so in a way it’s like I missed out on an important rite of passage. Students complain about not being able to eat certain foods or their wires being too tight, and I have no way of relating to them. All that aside, it is a fact that I am essentially surrounded by youth all day, every day, which leads me to think about my dental transgressions, which reminds me that it’s been years since I’ve been to a dentist, and the next thing I know it’s ten o’clock at night, a denture cream commercial comes on during Seinfeld (“You’re a rabid anti-dentite!”), and I’m caught in a spiral of dental depression that lasts until I fall asleep.

I realize I’m being hyperbolic, but the extent of my dental fear is pretty extreme.  So extreme, in fact, that the only thing that forced me into a dentist’s chair after so many years was the sudden pang of a wisdom tooth that decided it wanted to make a dramatic appearance. After a couple days of Orajel, Advil, and soft foods, I told my coworker that my mouth was bothering me.

“That explains all the soup,” she said, biting into an apple slice.

“Well,” I pointed out, “I also really like soup.” Then I made some kind of excuse about not having a dentist and not having adequate dental insurance and not being in that much pain, not really. She looked at me doubtfully, then handed me a slip of paper with a number scrawled across it.

“They’re super nice here,” she said. “They take our insurance, and they aren’t judgmental. If you don’t call,” she added, “I will.” She looked just stern enough that I believed she meant business, plus she’s pregnant, and I’ve learned not to argue with a pregnant woman, so, long story short: I womanned up and called the damn dentist.

I would be lying, friends, if I said writing this article came easily. Online dating, bike riding, and giving up social media were much easier topics for me. Part of the problem is that, in writing about this, I find myself looking up information on dentophobia, which means that I have to see pictures of dental tools and x-rays and all those sorts of things, which make me cringe and then, as a knee-jerk response, binge on Buzzfeed articles with cute puppies in Halloween costumes. By the time I’ve exhausted my corgis-dressed-as-hot-dogs quota, I’m tired of looking at my computer (#caninecopingmechanisms #caninesareteethanddogs #mindblown). An incredibly scientific investigation on Wikipedia garners the (probably questionable) fact that 75% of adults in the United States experience some form of dentophobia. A WebMD statistic quotes 15%, so who knows. It is a fact, however, that this is an issue for others like me. There are entire web sites, such as the appropriately named dentalfearcentral.org, that cater to dentophobes. And, when it comes down to it, I know that my fear of the dentist is nowhere near as serious as many others. As with most of my controllable fears, both rational and irrational, all I have to do is confront it to realize it’s not so bad. Unfortunately, it’s the “confront it” part that I often find so difficult, and the day of my first appointment was absolutely no exception.

Molar the Second

When I walked into the dentist office, I felt like I was going to throw up. This is not figurative. I legitimately made a mental note of the bathroom’s location and took several deep breaths, a trick I learned many years ago on an episode of Ricki Lake that featured guests with strange fears. “I take deep breaths and swallow really hard,” claimed a woman in a tight tank top, and I, an impressionable seventh grader with my own weak stomach issues, took note.

The office I had just stepped into did not look like a dentist’s office. Sure, the scrub-to-plain-clothes ratio was high, but other than that it lacked fish tanks, uncomfortable chairs, worn magazines, and other waiting room staples. Scented candles flickered warmly on top of a faux fireplace mantle, and above that, on a big screen TV, The Great Gatsby played. “Great,” I thought, “now Leo will always remind me of the dentist.” I checked in and sat in a chair, scrutinizing every patient who walked through the door. This resulted in thoughts such as, “Her teeth are amazing,” and, “Whoah, those chompers are jacked up.” I ran my tongue along the row of my upper teeth, then my left, then on the tooth I was pretty sure I would be told had a cavity. I checked my phone, saw a text from t—you gotta see a man about a tooth—and wondered if I should just get the puking over with now. Or run out of the office and into the shopping mall located beneath it, maybe buy some new boots or a colorful dress and just live with the fact of gnawing my cheek raw the rest of my life.

“Casey Lefante,” someone said, and I turned to face my dental hygienist, who welcomed me with a wide, toothy smile. “Hey,” she said, “so great to meet you! Let’s get you started right over here!”

Everything she said ended in an exclamation point. Normally, I would find this kind of enthusiasm grating, but something about her just made me grateful. I realized, as I followed her into my room, that I had mentally pictured someone much gruffer. Possibly named Bertha.

On a TV above the chair, Monsters Inc. played, and I thanked the sweet Lord Jesus for giving me something to distract myself from what I expected would be a painful cleaning. Will they tell me bad news with the movie still playing, I asked myself. Wouldn’t that be sort of inappropriate? As long as the movie was playing, I decided, I was good.

The hygienist took multiple x-rays, all the while asking me about my work and what I do for fun. I found myself, despite the pain of biting down on the x-ray equipment, forgetting briefly about my dental fear. Then she asked me about my dental hygiene routine.

“I brush twice a day,” I said, “and I use mouthwash at least once a day.”

“Okay!” She snapped on a new pair of gloves. “And how often do you floss?”

I spilled my guts like a guilty thief. “I know I should floss,” I said quickly, “and the problem is when I floss it bleeds, and so I’m worried that if I floss then I might yank a tooth out, so I don’t floss even though I know I absolutely should, and I’m sure the bleeding stops once I get used to flossing, but I just don’t know, and I’m sorry that I don’t floss.” I almost ended with a ma’am.

Thankfully, she didn’t laugh at me, but simply said, “Bleeding is totally normal if you aren’t used to flossing, so just start doing it once every other day, and your gums will strengthen! I’ll put some in your goody bag!”

I could have kissed her and her exclamation points.

She showed me my x-rays, then commenced the cleaning, which was about as pleasant as I remembered it being from my last dental appointment. Still, no blood squirted from my face, and no teeth flew out as she scraped and prodded, so I found myself focusing on the Disney movie and just letting her go to town on my bicuspids. Finally, she finished up and had me talk to the dentist, who looked about twelve years old and told me that my left two wisdom teeth should be removed.

“What about the other teeth?” I asked.

Both the dentist and the hygienist looked at me quizzically, so I specified, “How are they?”

“You have a cavity,” the dentist said, “but the bone structure looks good.”

“So I don’t need dentures?” I asked.

The dentist still looked quizzical, but the hygienist laughed. “No,” she said, “not dentures yet,”
and again, I could have kissed her face. Instead, I accepted my goody bag (complete with floss) and treated myself to Pinkberry for my bravery.

Molar the Third, Wisest of Molars

As it turned out, I didn’t return to the original dentist. Instead, I allowed one of my best friends to remove my two wisdom teeth and fill my cavity. It’s one thing to allow a total stranger to pull out your teeth, and it is quite another to open wide for someone who you’ve known since eighth grade. On one hand, it’s awkward. You can’t hide your dental transgressions with a peppermint and a closed-lip smile. Also, you each remember when the other was an awkward adolescent. This is a girl with whom you attended an *NSYNC concert, a girl who poured glitter over your entire head before going to see BBMAK. You were totally into boy bands whose names were acronyms, and now you are totally letting this person steal your teeth and drill a filling into your face.

On the other, more important hand, it is enormously comforting to know that the person with the drill is not only an incredibly competent dentist, but also someone who has seen you first thing in the morning at countless sleepovers and girls’ trips, someone who has forgiven you for being intolerable before 10 am. She’s allowed you to cry on her shoulder when life just wasn’t fair, bought you dinner when pay day just wasn’t close enough, and visited you in the hospital when serious illness just wouldn’t wait until you were older to strike. She knows your threshold for pain and will pump you so full of anesthetic that you won’t feel a damn thing, and if you ask for more she’ll give it to you without hesitation. That’s the kind of dentist you want: someone who not only accepts the moniker of Tooth Thief during an oxycodone-induced text exchange, but who starts the conversation in the first place by texting, How’s it going, Numb Face?

The story of how I ended up going to Tooth Thief after my initial dentist trip is longer than it needs to be. Suffice it to say that, after some deliberation, my parents dropped me off at her office with the plan that she would drive me, her last patient for the day, back to my childhood home where I could recover under sufficient supervision. It was like we were in high school again, only with Novocain.

Speaking of which, I was doing fine until then. Even though I fully understood that I not only needed to numb my face to prevent pain but that I was demanding it by the truckload, I still felt incredibly nervous about the entire prospect. Before she started, Tooth Thief told me to close my eyes so I wouldn’t see the needle. Even though I closed them, I could obviously still feel it. More than that, my hands started shaking uncontrollably, and whether it was from the Novocain or a panic attack, I don’t exactly know. I do know that I thought to myself, Self, if you faint in this office, you at least know that your friend in the Hello Kitty watch will take care of you.

“I feel weird,” I tried to tell said friend in said watch, but it came out more like, “Ah phee weeah.”

“Weird how?”

It would seem she was well versed in the language of the numb. I moved my hand in front of my throat and tried to mime something about needing to cough.

“Phee’s lie somphin eh mah phroa.”

“You can go to the bathroom,” she suggested. “Do what ever you have to do. We have some time.”

I walked to the bathroom, trying to look normal even though it felt like one side of my face weighed ten pounds more than the other. Stay cool, I thought, waving to a dental hygienist on my way. I stumbled into a closet by accident, then into what looked like a kitchen, then, finally, into the bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror and attempted logical thought processes. When that didn’t work, I coughed into a napkin, flushed it down the toilet, and returned to my seat.

“Reahhy,” I said. “Less oo eh.”

When I was little, probably around eight or nine, I chose to listen to The Little Mermaid’s soundtrack during a cavity filling. This time around, I chose something a little more zen. And let me tell you something, dental patients of tomorrow: when it comes to anxiety-reducing minstrels, Simon and Garfunkel are your men. There is no more comforting lyric than, “Hello darkness, my old friend” when one is reclined, mouth wide open, and saying farewell to a couple of molars.

When the procedure was finished, I waited for Tooth Thief as she packed up her things and wrote out my prescriptions. We went to the drug store together, where she helped me pick up my prescriptions before driving me to my parents’, where soup and yogurt awaited my sore face. That night, as I lay on the couch watching Disney movies, I didn’t have the self-awareness to really appreciate the fact that I had, in a span of a week, conquered a fear of the dentist and been lucky enough to have a good friend help me in the process. Or maybe I did have some sort of mind-blowing self-aware thought, but there’s no way I’d remember it. Another great thing about having a friend as a dentist is that she keeps you well medicated.

While writing this article, I shared with a friend one of the web sites about conquering dental fear. “If you’d like to say ‘thank you’ to that special dentist,” the site states, “but don’t know how—apart from saying ‘thank you’ in person (which is always very much appreciated!)—here are some ideas.” My parting thought for you, dear reader, is this very helpful information on what some dentists have received as gifts for taking teeth without killing their patients. Under the section labeled “Gift Ideas for Dentists” are the following suggestions: a thank you card, chocolates, champagne, bottles of wine, a dentist ornament, golf lessons, a trip to the patient’s interesting workplace (such as a US Navy plane, the site suggests, should one be so lucky), and, my personal favorite, a rainbow trout.

Thanks for helping me conquer my fear, Tooth Thief.  Your trout is in the mail.

About Casey Lefante