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Dental Anxiety: A Short Short Story about Going to the Dentist
Dentist appointment at 2:00. And on a Monday. What could possibly be worse? Katrina was a worrier about most things – job stability, traffic, whether she had said the wrong thing to her co-worker whose husband had just left her. She often worried late into the night, but usually things worked out well, or at least not as badly as she anticipated.
Dentist appointments were the exception. Something always went wrong – it took twice as long as estimated, it hurt when they said it wouldn’t, and the dental assistant became upset and started crying. Katrina always made a heroic effort of force her mind to think positive thoughts about the dentist. If she didn’t do that she wouldn’t be able to make herself go at all. But she kept her appointments because the thought of becoming a toothless old woman was slightly more threatening than going to the dentist.
She spent the morning doing yoga, repeating affirmations about how it was going to be okay, and telling herself how lucky she was that Dr. Elliot was such a great dentist who really knew what he was doing. Katrina didn’t think she was a horrible patient. It was in her interest was to cooperate fully to get out of the chair as quickly as humanly possible, especially since they incessantly piped 1970s pop music into the office – the kind that had grated on her nerves for most of her life. But never had she complained out loud about the music, even though listening to "Stairway to Heaven" while having a root canal was pretty close to her idea of Hell. Yet, for some reason, the assistants at Dr. Elliot’s office seemed to perceive her as a “difficult” patient, as if it were somehow her fault that the anesthetic didn’t take, the crown molding didn’t mold right, or her roots aren’t shaped the way dental books showed.
The dental assistants strongly hinted on several occasions that the doctor could give her a prescription for Valium to take an hour before her next visit. During one visit an assistant named Leslie spent the entire time chatting about people with dental anxiety and various methods for relaxing. Katrina kept saying, “ I am not anxious. I’m fine.” She couldn’t figure out what she was doing that made Leslie think she was nervous. She did not know how to prove she wasn’t. If they took her blood pressure it would probably be high because she was anxious about the fact that her words and behavior seemed to have absolutely no effect on Leslie's impression of her.
Another time, when she was lying on her back with her mouth numb, a long rubber tube had slipped down her throat and completely cut off her air supply. She banged her hands on the arms of the chair and heard Dr. Elliot say, “Breath through your nose!” She kicked her feet and then felt Dr. Elliot pull something long and slippery out of her throat. He and the assistant – Tiffany this time – sat her up and she gasped for breath and sobbed for several minutes. Something about being completely unable to breath and seeing death's door a few moments away had upset her emotionally on a level she had never before experienced.
Dr. Elliot took a break and Tiffany said, “I’m so sorry. This has never happened before!” But she seemed more exasperated than apologetic and Katrina heard the silent, “And it could only happen to you.” She wondered if the opening to her throat was larger than that of other people, or if there was something she didn’t know that other people knew about preventing things from going down your throat. But it wasn’t as though she regularly choked on her gum or cough drops. It had never happened to her before either.
As Katrina forced herself to drive to Dr. Elliot’s office, she blocked dental thoughts out of her mind; she put herself into kind of a trance, thinking of other things – her son’s college applications, what was on sale this week at Farm Fresh, the article she was working on for a local magazine about how to prevent bats and squirrels from getting in the attic. It was a crown preparation, a procedure she had put off as long a possible without endangering the root canal, which had been exceedingly difficult because her roots were not shaped right.
It wasn’t the worst ever. She had to endure the music, but the anesthetic took on the first try, they only had to take the mold twice, and there were only three or four moments of intense pain. Dr. Elliot was as calm and pleasant as usual and Tiffany was only slightly strained in her cheerfulness. They remembered to put the chair upright so nothing would fall down her throat. Katrina could tell they were being extra cautious, as if they had called a special conference before she came in. When she was done she received her reward – the delicious feeling of relief that it was over with.