Finding Nemo

I have to go to the dentist. I hate the dentist. I try to get sympathy from a co-worker – Caitlin. I expect her to say, ‘Yea, me too’, but no.

“Oh my God, I love the dentist. I would go every day if I could.”

Are you kidding me? Who says that?

“Why do you hate the dentist?” Because it hurts.

“Do you floss?” No, but I brush my teeth three times a day!

Caitlin stares at me, dumbfounded. (She also gives me a look that tells me I’m a complete moron, but I don’t take it personally because she looks at most people this way.)

“Brushing your teeth doesn’t do anything. You need to floss.” But my gums bleed! It hurts.

“Yea. Your gums are going to bleed. You need to floss every day. I love flossing my teeth.”

Of course you do.

I call to make my appointment, hoping they won’t be able to fit me in for another month or so. Unfortunately, there’s an available appointment in one week. Shit. I need to start flossing yesterday. I hang up the phone and promise myself to floss every single day leading up to my appointment.

Before, when my gums would bleed while flossing, I’d think that was a bad thing, but this time, as they start to bleed, I realize that it’s a good thing. Don’t ask me what changed, except Caitlin telling me that, “Of course they’re going to bleed. They’re not healthy.”

But the more I floss, the stronger they’ll be, and the less I’ll bleed. By the third day, I’m actually enjoying it. I like seeing the blood. It’s working! By the last day, they’re still bleeding – not nearly as much – AND they’re not nearly as sensitive as they were a week ago.

Still, I haven’t been to the dentist in 10 freakin’ years. One week of flossing and Listerine is not going to make up for all that time. And the fact is, my gums are still bleeding, my one tooth in the back hurts, and I’ve chipped my front teeth from clenching my jaw too hard.

The dentist is 20 minutes away and as I’m driving there, every time I remember where I’m going, my stomach drops. I really hate the dentist.

I fill out all the paperwork. I don’t have a history of anything bad, but when I come to the bottom of the page, I find myself checking the “yes” box for a lot of bad things: Do your gums bleed when you floss? Do your gums bleed when you brush your teeth? Do you have pain in your mouth? Do you grind your teeth?

Can’t be a good sign. 

The girl at reception is very friendly – it’s called Friendly Dental, after all – and goes over the different options for paying without insurance. I’ll think about this when I know what I actually have to pay for.

Another young woman retrieves me from the waiting area. Brianna makes me feel very at ease, complimenting my glasses and asking where I got them. We then talk on and on about glasses and Warby Parker and how she finally got a really nice pair of purple Gucci frames, only to have someone steal them out of her car. That’s just mean.

When she then asks me what’s going on, I easily launch into my fear of the dentist and my TMJ. According to WebMD, “TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint: a hinge that connects your jaw to the temporal bones of your skull, which are in front of each ear. It lets you move your jaw up and down and side to side, so you can talk, chew, and yawn.”

I’m sure that I have TMJ because I clench my jaw during sleep. Every time I open my mouth wide, it clicks on both sides. It doesn’t exactly hurt, but it feels sore and makes my head hurt if I chew a lot – that’s why I stopped chewing gum. I don’t think I have ever had lock-jaw – but I do have a fear of it (naturally). Sometimes I actually think that it has happened before, because I’ve dreamt it so often.

A lot of people with TMJ get headaches often. I do not, but I do have awful neck and shoulder pain that I have always attributed to stress/anxiety. Now I’m rethinking this, because it says that other symptoms include neck and upper shoulder aches.

Brianna takes my X-rays. Everything is so different from the last time I was at the dentist. Times have changed. This room is open and airy with lots of windows and a radio station playing catchy songs of the 2000’s with Brianna singing along. The last dentist’s office I was in was like a windowless closet, and the only sound was the hum of an air conditioner and the air-sucky thing in my mouth.

Next, the hygienist comes in, her face covered in one of those masks so I can only see her eyes. Instead of saying hi, she just says, “OK, we’re going to do some poking and prodding.” Oh, great. I can’t wait. Before she goes in, I feel my whole body tense up, bracing for impact. Courtney must sense my apprehension. “Don’t worry. I have a soft touch.” Brianna then lets me know, “We’re looking for 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s.”

I have no idea what this means. Courtney dives in, going from tooth to tooth, each time saying three numbers. “2-1-2, 2-2-2, 5-3-3, 3-4-3.” I catch on. 4’s and 5’s are bad. All around, my numbers aren’t too too high, but’s I’ve heard enough 4’s and 5’s to worry me. I still have no idea what she just did. All I know is, she had a sharp metal thing on my teeth and gums, and it didn’t hurt, so this is going swimmingly. Also, she knows I have TMJ, so she didn’t make me open my mouth too wide. Dentist’s in the past have not cared in the slightest about my TMJ or pain in my jaw (or maybe that’s just how I prefer to remember it).

Next up, the actual dentist, Lynette. I met Lynette, waiting on her at the restaurant where I work. She’s a little older and very pretty – with very nice teeth. We get to talking about yoga and realize we go to the same studio. I soon find out that she’s also a dentist.

I just so happen to be looking for a dentist. Do you have a card?

She gives me one. I haven’t been able to figure out where I want to go or how to pick a dentist – there are so many – but I like this lady. It makes my decision easy.

I book an appointment at Friendly Dental and request Lynette as my dentist. When she walks in, I immediately remind her of who I am – I’ve only waited on her twice. Whether or not she remembers me, she goes with it, and soon we’re back to yoga. Then we get down to business.

I tell her about everything. My TMJ, my 10-year hiatus, my new love of floss and bleeding gums. She takes a look at my teeth. “Well, for not being here in 10 years, you look pretty good.”

I have two cavities. Not too bad! And everything else seems to be OK. Today is supposed to be X-rays and a cleaning, but it’s decided that before the regular cleaning, I need something called a Full Mouth Debridement: “the removal of plaque and tartar that is so prominent in the mouth that removing it will take a considerable amount more effort and time than in a typical cleaning.” Basically, my mouth is disgusting, and they need to remove some plaque and stains immediately. By all means, please, go ahead.

So today, pre-clean. Next appointment, three chipped teeth in front and the regular cleaning. The following appointment, both cavities, and take impressions to fit me for a night guard (to prevent grinding my teeth).

This is the real reason I haven’t been to the dentist in ten years. Who can afford it?? But that’s why I’m here. I finally can afford it. (And by afford it, I mean put it on my credit card and pay it off later.)

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