I’ve been lucky enough to live a pretty mild life when it comes to fears and anxiety. No aversions to clowns, spiders, or knives. If the day comes when a knife-wielding spider dressed as Bozo materializes, maybe I’ll adjust my views, but until then I’m relatively unaffected by phobias.
Except for the dentist — whenever I go the dentist, I get an uneasy, queasy feeling.
My fear was pretty irrational. I think maybe it was stale atmosphere that made me uncomfortable. The air conditioner pumping icy air into the room, the sterile scent of plastic supplies and metal utensils, maybe even the anxiety of trying to schedule an appointment with the bristly receptionist.
I'd had only minor mishaps in the past. I’d swallowed elastics from my braces and gagged on the silly putty they put in your mouth to make retainers.
There was even an incident where I accidentally grabbed the arm of a dental assistant and she screamed that I hit her. If you were 15 and choking to death on a wire barb they forgot to cut from the back of your braces, your sweaty little palms would cling to the nearest living creature, too.
But I hadn't experienced anything too traumatic at the dentist until this particular day.
My mother dropped me off for a cavity filling. Since I have my mom’s sensitive teeth, this was par for the course.
I'd been seeing this dentist since the second grade, so we knew the whole song and dance. I’d sit down, he’d tell me to lay off the soda and candy and I would nod in agreement while thinking about the Swedish fish stuffed into my coat pocket. See you in six months.
Needles don't particularly bother me, but their anesthetic needle was uncomfortable to look at. It looked more like a prop from The Knick than a sleek modern dental tool.
Even in the presence of the torture needle, my nerves were soothed by the pineapple-flavored numbing gel they placed on the injection site and the radio station playing Celine Dion overhead.
After the bottom left part of my mouth was numb, the drilling began. During the procedure, I would close my eyes for a while then glance up to catch the reflection of my mouth in the doctors protective goggles. I'm an excessive drooler, so it wasn’t uncommon for my dentist to get some backsplash.
Unfortunately, as I opened my eyes this time, I caught part of what looked like a horror show. I must’ve flicked my tongue trying to swallow the saliva pooling at the back of my throat. The dental assistants have come to know my gag reflex can’t handle that sucky tube thing too deep. We’ve had a few close calls.
I heard the consistent hum of the drill and then the hum suddenly sounded like someone had ripped a needle off a record player. I saw the doctors’ surgical mask pucker in as he gasped. His hands clambered. A bright splatter splashed across his goggles.
Instead of the regular saliva soak, it was bright red. Oh god. He had dropped the drill in my mouth while it was still drilling.
I couldn’t feel any pain, but the scrambling of both the doctor and the dental assistant made me feel like I had flat-lined and they were going for the paddles.
With a wide-eyed look on his face, the doctor reassured me that everything was fine as he began jamming cotton balls into my mouth.
“You’re doing great, you’re fine!”
Oh god, am I dying? No one’s explaining what’s happening. I’m dying. Quick, shove a Swedish fish in my mouth.
Not even a minute after the cotton balls went in, the doctor pulled them out, now a sopping red pile of mush. More cotton balls were shoved in and taken out, just as soaking wet as the first batch.
“I’m so sorry. You’re going to be fine!”
Please don’t apologize. Go back to the fake confidence. I’m young and impressionable. I’ll believe you. Lie to me.
“We have to give you a few stitches. We can do dissolvable or we can give you regular ones you can come back and have taken out.”
I opted for dissolvable because it sounded less invasive.
That is, until he brought out what looked like the spool of twine they to wrap hay barrels. I have no idea how hay barrels are wrapped, but humor me. It was so thick you could make hemp bracelets.
Still numb, I couldn’t feel the soreness yet. I wasn’t even exactly sure where the drill had hit in my mouth.
Turns out it fell snugly under my tongue, severing a portion of my tongue connecter from the bottom of my mouth.
My tongue lowered and lowered with each swipe of the needle and thread, in one side and out the other. The goal was to get my tongue to rest as much as possible so the wound would heal without disruption from eating and talking.
The dentist sewed me up and then finished filling the cavity at record speed.
When it was over, he escorted me to the front to explain what the dried blood on my face was all about to my mother who was back from her errands.
Despite being about 17 years old at the time, I was offered consolation via the treasure chest box for kids. It was stacked with pencils, stickers and little freaky goblin finger puppets.
I was encouraged to take a handful, but not wanting to be too greedy, I just grabbed a couple of Disney princess stickers that surprisingly made me feel better.
At least until the Novocaine started wearing off about 45 minutes later. It felt like someone had ripped my tongue out and stapled it back in.
When I talked, I looked like a ventriloquist dummy, robotically dropping my jaw up and down with no tongue movement to articulate words.
Although I was advised not to drink any hot liquids so as to not agitate or dissolve the stitches prematurely, I couldn't resist the perfect comfort food, chicken and rice soup. Who would have known a single grain of rice, so delicate and light, could cause so much devastation when caught under a stitch?
Reflexively, I tried to move my tongue down to get it out. I flicked my tongue up and popped one of the stitches out. Hooray!
I went to the bathroom to check out the damage. I caught a glimpse of my teeth, coated in red like a goddamn horror clown or someone's aunt who doesn’t blot her five layers of lipstick before smiling. My mother rounded the corner to see what I was doing and said my name in a tone that only confirmed I was an idiot.
I begged not to be taken back to the dentist to get it sewn up again (like I said, idiot) and I rode the rest of the healing out, only periodically tasting blood when I snapped my mouth open too fast.
Amazingly, I'm less scared of the dentist now. Maybe because I experienced a vision straight out of my irrational fears and it wasn’t as terrible as it had been in my mind.
Besides, I have no choice but to go to the dentist regularly if I don’t want all my teeth to fall out. I take much better care to floss now, as a preventative measure against having drills dropped in my mouth. But I’m not giving up my Swedish fish.