You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

in praise of Dentists

I went to the dentist this morning.

It's incredible how the mention of a visit to the dentist strikes fear in the heart of even the biggest, toughest and meanest. We seem to have this deeply entrenched cultural agreement that dental work is a terrible thing to have to go through, deserving of much sympathy. We hold up the hypothetical trip to the dentist as a measure against which to compare all unpleasant or painful experiences. Just the sort of thing that I want to look for the beauty in. Just to be a bit subversive.

Now, I'm not a masochist - obviously, there's no denying that a dental procedure, with all that drilling and grinding and poking and whatnot is an uncomfortable, unpleasant experience, even with the dramatic improvements in anaesthetics. But I have found a way to remember to look on the bright side and not let that discomfort become distress.

I'm lucky that the public dental services in my area are really good. These services can really vary a lot in availability according to where you live, I have found. I had been to this clinic before to get my wisdom teeth removed. Everyone there is really friendly and professional, and the individuals work together as a team well. So, when a piece of one of my molars broke off last week, leaving a sharp edge, I called them straight away. Well, once business hours started. It helps to have these things happen on a weekday.

I was actually panicking a bit when it happened. I've never had a piece of tooth fall off for no apparent reason before, and it seemed to be a sign of something disastrous. Then I started to notice that when I told my friends what had happened, they weren't at all shocked or disturbed, or considering it much of a big deal. Hmm. I guess this is just one of those things that starts to happen as you get older.

The time for the appointment came around. The receptionist was lovely. I hardly even waited five minutes before I was called in. The dentist was a lovely, tiny lady. I told her that my tooth had broken, that I had panicked at first, but as the week passed and it didn't hurt, and I didn't cut my tongue or cheek on the sharp bit, I had come to the conclusion that it wasn't too drastic. She had a look. In 20 seconds she knew exactly what she was going to do. I could see her mind processing so efficiently. She told me she was filling it in, and applied the anaesthetic with much reassurance and soothing. She worked quickly and confidently and kept telling me I was doing well. The whole procedure, four layers of the filling and polishing it up, took no more than twenty minutes. I told her my secret to being a good dental patient. Here it is. Imagine a world without dentists.

I came up with this reasoning while undergoing a root canal treatment about ten years ago. I didn't want to be freaked out by the procedures. I thought about it. I thought, well, what if I were living hundreds of years ago, or in a remote, poor country, and there weren't any dentists. What if there was nothing that could be done for the toothache but to take brandy or attach a piece of string to a door handle and slam. I realised that the toothache was worse than the dental treatment. That's why we go to dentists. This line of thought made me feel very grateful for the dentists, for their skill and knowledge and the technology of their modern tools, and rather inclined to be co-operative. Then, when I was in the dentist's chair having my canal rooted, I meditated upon this with all the concentration I could muster. I breathed deeply and opened wide. I relaxed to the point where it wasn't traumatic. The dentist commented that I was a very good patient - though I can tell you that there are quite a few hospital doctors out there who would not agree. The procedure was successful. I still have my tooth in my mouth. Since then I have applied this technique and never stressed about a visit to the dentist.

One of the less obvious health problems associated with mental illness is a reduced ability to keep up good dental care. For me, it happens like this. If I'm not horribly depressed, I make reasonable efforts to brush and floss regularly. But on a really bad day, just getting through the day without doing anything drastic is enough to deal with. On a bad day, if I get to the end of the day and I haven't attempted suicide, I've done well. If I have eaten some real food at some point in the day, that's a bonus. Brushing my teeth just does not come anywhere on my list of priorities. When I'm in that state, I just want so much to die, I really don't believe that I'm going to be alive for much longer. From this perspective, the prevention of tooth decay is pretty irrelevant. So, there are times when I don't brush my teeth, or don't brush them often enough, according to the state of my mental health.

I also have to admit to eating way too much of the things that are bad for your teeth. I am badly addicted to sugar, especially chocolate. That might be considered to be a separate issue to the mental illness, but I'm aware that I use chocolate to self-medicate. That's actually a little more rational than it sounds. Modern studies are showing there are definitely natural anti-depressant chemicals present in cocoa. It's unfortunate that it usually comes processed and mixed up with lots of fat and sugar.

This leaves me dependent on the tools and craft of the dentist to fix up the damage. Well, I reckon they're doing a fine job. I still have all my teeth, patched up as they are. I don't think my 18th century counterpart would have been so lucky. Nor my third-world counterpart. The public health service is providing me with the wonderful service of these skilled workers and the benefits of high technological standards, in this case without a ridiculous waiting list to get through, and as a pensioner, I only had to pay a contribution of $25 for today's appointment. I am so thankful for our public health services.

Of course, the hours that followed were a bit uncomfortable, what with the half a mouth being numb, and feeling funny as the anaesthetic wore off, and then being a bit sore when it did wear off. If there was any residual grumpiness, I got to take that out on the debt collector later in the day. But that's another story.

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