I Went to the Dentist & Now I Need a Nap

Let me begin by acknowledging the fact that I let myself become a cautionary tale. You can keep your judgment to yourself–I’ve got this one.

The last time I went to the dentist, I was having a cavity filled and the Novocaine had worn off or wasn’t enough, so I felt everything and they wouldn’t believe me. It was traumatic enough that I don’t know the dentist’s name or location or exactly how old I was…and I’ve let decades go by, neglecting something I’m supposed to do at least twice a year. I’ve actually had the thought more than once, if I were murdered and buried in someone’s backyard or I perished in a fire, would they be able to use dental records to identify my body?

It’s been a long, long, long time, and at some point, perhaps after the second “long,” the shame sets in and you can’t go to the dentist because you don’t want the scolding. So I’ve just tried to be careful about my teeth, even when sometimes my executive functioning is way off and I forget a brushing here and there. Let’s put it down to luck that I’ve not had (or at least felt) any cavities over the years.

Well, you know what doesn’t last forever? Luck. And also teeth. About a month ago, I chipped a molar while eating. It didn’t hurt at all, but it was terrifying, because it’s a piece of your tooth that just fell off. Like when you see a piece of a glacier break off? That’s just frozen water that has reached a certain temperature and can’t be part of the single, solid mass anymore, and while that’s bad, sure, it’s not surprising in the same way that a piece of my very very supposedly solid tooth broke off. So what did I do? I hit the internet.

The internet told me I should see a dentist immediately. Yeah, no. The internet told me to keep it clean. Can do. I made sure to brush and peroxide-rinse and check for swelling and redness pretty obsessively. I don’t know what my long-term plan was, maybe just to hope it was a temporary flare-up and that I could stall until I was better prepared to deal with it.

And while I was indeed able to buy myself some time, a few days ago this tooth decided to protest my inaction.

It still took me two days of dealing with the pain, rinsing with salt water, rubbing clove oil on my gums, brushing even more often, and researching my options. Finally, I got the name of my friend’s dentist (because he sings the praises of this dentist like I’ve never heard before) and pulled up the website to call for an appointment. It took a good 12 hours of having the site on a browser tab of my computer as I worked before calling…and they were closed. So I sent an email query. And I was super proud of myself, while still in pain, of course.

The next morning, while I was still in bed doing my morning news sweep, they called and asked if I could come in within the next 50 minutes. It was their only open appointment for a few days, so I rode the excitement and said yes and scrambled to get myself dressed and out the door. There was a moment when my eyeliner was uneven and I almost bailed on the whole thing and went back to bed, because I had to make myself as presentable and together-looking to make up for my dental downfall. But I powered through and got myself to the office.

Luckily, it was a single-dentist office, and due to COVID, they were only bringing one patient in at a time, so I was alone with the assistant and dentist. I explained that I’m sure there were other problems with my teeth but I just needed to deal with this emergency and if they saw anything else, they should put it in a written report and I’d deal with it later, when I was able to process it. It’s the same way I walk into an oil change–when you know your limits, just be up front about what those limits are. They can do their job, but they don’t get to put pressure on you to make decisions you’re not ready to. I used to worry that it would seem like a brush-off, but I’m over it. I refuse to make decisions about myself or my things on someone else’s terms.

The dentist was great, if a little chatty. They did one X-ray, talking through their actions, and drew pictures of my tooth, then walked through each of our options to deal with it. Because there was decay involved and I’d cracked it down below the gumline–and it was a back molar–saving the tooth would have been a complicated and expensive attempt without much of a guarantee. Plus I could get by just fine with one less molar. No one would see it, and I’d still be able to eat. Our solution: Yank the thing out.

The experience hadn’t been too bad. Sure, there were bright lights involved, but that was brief, and I was able to fidget with the elastic ties on my mask, which I held the whole visit. But I noticed a processing issue: Somewhere I missed cues about who would be pulling my tooth. I thought they would do it, so even when they were putting things away and the dentist said that hopefully the assistant could schedule me for the same day, I thought maybe I had used up my emergency slot and would have to come back later, to allow for the next scheduled patient. Weird and not particularly convenient but okay. I got my stuff and went to the front desk. Then the assistant mentioned other locations they usually send people. I don’t know what my face was doing, but she stopped and said, “We’re sending you to an oral surgeon.” Ohhhhh, okay. I don’t know what I missed that someone else might have picked up, but it was definitely a moment where I needed them to say the words that they meant.

When I got back to my car, I called the oral surgeon and was able to get an appointment for later in the day, so I went home for a few hours, cleaned myself up from my nervous sweating, did some work, and made sure I didn’t allow myself to relax or I’d never get back up. I was already so emotionally drained from going to a new office, acting like a typical adult human, and opening myself up to a potentially traumatic situation that I really wanted to fall apart. But I kept myself together and headed into appointment number two for the day. I had Tom go with me in case something went wrong and I had to be put under and needed a driver.

This one went so fast that I almost didn’t have a chance to be nervous. I went in, got my forms to fill out, filled them out in the empty waiting room, and was called in immediately. Then the assistant and oral surgeon didn’t waste any time and it was bib on, a quick peek in my mouth, Novocaine shots, setting up equipment, more Novocaine shots, shoving a doorstop thingy between my teeth to keep my mouth open, and promises of “a lot of pressure,” followed by a lot of pressure. Before I knew it, I felt a thread hit me in the face while he said, “Keep your eyes closed one more minute. I’m putting in a stitch.” Boom, done. And then the talking and more processing issues.

The surgeon asked if I was going to replace the tooth, because if I was–or if I didn’t know–they’d do a graft for whenever I was ready. I hadn’t thought about replacing it, so I didn’t research it. Fully incapable of researching or knowing what questions to ask, I started to panic, my brain retreating into itself. So I caught myself and just said no. It was either that or blow a fuse. (I later researched it and that kind of replacement could cost between $3,000 and $6,000, so um, no way.) Then they put me in a recovery room and called in Tom. They went through my aftercare, giving me prescriptions and a bag of stuff like gauze and a pamphlet of instructions. Great. Except that when I got home and read the pamphlet, it was general oral surgery aftercare and not the same instructions they gave me. I’d focused so hard to their spoken instructions, but I didn’t feel confident that I’d gotten it right, since I was also very nervous and exhausted, so I’m glad I had Tom to confirm things for me.

That night, I was just useless. I very well may have had some pain in my face, but the emotional drain of the day was so much more powerful. I’m very glad I did it, though, because I don’t even want to think about what the alternative might have been if I ignored it longer. Now I just have to deal with eating squishy, soft food and feeling this thread from the stitch holding my ex-tooth hole shut. Until next time!

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