The Voluntary Visit to the Dentist


“As nice as you are, I’ve come to realize that you are not my friend,” I told a dental hygienist named Ms. Mary after she provided me a deep cleaning procedure that involved the sights and sounds of my worst nightmares.

Ms. Mary is a very nice, professional woman. Some might even go so far to say that she’s a sweet woman who engages her clients in pleasant conversation. Ms. Mary also has such an unusual, almost melodic laugh that we can’t help but smile and laugh with her when we hear it. In a place many of us consider one of the scariest places in the world, Ms. Mary’s bedside manner (or in this case chairside) sets us completely at ease. At some point, however, and we both know that this moment is inevitable, Ms. Mary will be putting that chairside manner aside to get down to business. Her business is not kind, sweet, and endearing. Her business involves something called a Sickle probe, a Scaler, and the most feared of all dental tools the drill. She doesn’t cackle when she picks that drill up, and no one cues up harrowing music to inform us that the setting will be changing. She just quietly turns around to gather her tools, perhaps while we’re answering her last question, and she returns to us in a manner that allows the worst elements of our imagination to take over. 

Some of Ms. Mary’s tools make the most awful sounds, and some of the other ones help her chip away at the plaque and other buildup her patients have so recklessly acquired over the years. They’re all painful. At some point in her process, we inform Ms. Mary that we obviously don’t have enough painkiller, and at another point in the process we realize there never will be enough. Ms. Mary appears to do her best to accommodate us, but we know, somewhere deep in our heart, that Ms. Mary is an awful person who enjoys this far too much. 

When I tried to assure Ms. Mary that I was just joking when I said ’you are not my friend,’ she said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I love my job.” That reply convinced me that she knew I was just joking, but it also led me to wonder if she might be something of a psychopath. She loves doing this to me? She loves doing this to kind, well-meaning people like me so much that she’s been doing it for over ten years? Ms. Mary appeared to be such a pleasant, well-centered, and happy person that I’m sure I’ll feel different about her next week, so I have to write this now.

I know this is Ms. Mary’s job, and I know someone has to do this job, and I know that neglectful clients like me need someone to do this to me, but I can’t help but suspect that if Ms. Mary enjoys doing such awful things to otherwise pleasant men and women like me, who never do anything to harm anyone, she might have some psychopathic tendencies. If as Diffen.com says, “[Psychopaths] can pretend to be charming and loving, so those around them can’t always detect their lack of empathy,” I think Ms. Mary might have some tendencies that remind us of psychopaths. Before we dismiss this idea, I think we should look up the job history of some of our country’s worst psychopathic serial killers to see if we can find some corollaries. My bet is we find one who says:

“I was a dental hygienist for a couple years, and I found it absolutely thrilling, but I realized I needed to inflict more pain after a while. There was a reason that I was attracted to the profession in the first place though.”

No one portrayed the sadistic tendencies of a dentist better than Laurence Olivier in the movie Marathon Man. There was one relatively horrific scene in this otherwise boring movie in which Olivier threatens to pull a healthy tooth from his patient without painkillers, unless the patient gives him the information he needs. The reason I consider the horror in this scene relative is that when I’m nowhere near a dentist’s chair, I don’t understand why anyone would consider having a healthy tooth pulled without painkillers so frightening that they would give up state secrets. When Ms. Mary and the dentist liberated me from their office, after about an hour of a level of torture most of us know, however, I remember that movie scene with a shudder.

The entire scene of lying supine, mouth open, awaiting whatever they have planned, is such a vulnerable one. I know I would’ve talked if Laurence Olivier prodded some sensitive nerves, telling me, “You need to take better care of your teeth.” If he hit those sensitive nerves with the high-pitched sounds of his drill, and I had no painkillers, I suspect I might give up every state secret I knew.

Some talk about the high-pitched sounds of a drill with abject horror. This conversation is so common and the need to address the fear is so prevalent that most dentist office’s now provide their clients headphones to drown the sound out. Clients and prospective clients also talk about how much they hate the pain involved, so they take all of the painkillers the dentist has to offer, plus the nitrous oxide. Some potential clients seek dentists who have all of painkillers the state will allow. 

Prior to this particular dentist office visit, I informed these people that I turned down all but the basic painkiller, because I just want to hurry up and end whatever procedures they proscribe for the horrors going on in my mouth. I preferred to endure the pain to expedite the process. I did not want to wait for the nitrous to take hold. I just wanted them to start, so they could end sooner. Something changed for me this time. I don’t know if I psyched myself into a frenzy or what, but when they started drilling, I raised a hand and asked for more painkiller and more time for the nitrous to take hold. I took all the painkillers they had at their disposal this time and the headphones.

***

I’ve heard about the Stockholm syndrome in which the captive begins to develop unusual feelings of trust and affection for their captors. Some of the captives, used in various case examples, develop an emotional attachment to the captors who torture them, and they do so because they become reliant on their captors for survival. At some point in the torture, they slip from being a hostile captive to a cooperative one, and finally to one who unwittingly begins to side with their captors’ cause. Everyone develops coping mechanisms for stressful moments, and while we understand that sitting in a dentists’ chair is not in the same league with all of the various forms of torture, it does give those of us who know nothing of real torture some insight into what we might do when our captors know the right nerves to hit to get us to talk. 

My coping mechanism for dealing with this low-level stress was writing the article you’re reading right now. I wrote most of this article, in my mind of course, while Ms. Mary chipped away at my plaque, and I completed it when the dentist did what he did. When Ms. Mary tapped a sensitive nerve, I laughed. I did not laugh because I’m impervious to pain. I laughed because I thought of a great line that I hoped to add right here … but I lost it after my drug-induced state wore off. I remembered thinking that it was such a great line that I should hurry up and write it down before I forgot it, and I knew that it would get lost in the ether, or to the ether, and I probably should hurry up and write it down. I didn’t write it down, or even say it to Ms. Mary to make it more memorable, because as much as I live for great sentences, I didn’t want to prolong the process for even a minute more.    

I experienced a small window into how I might fare under torture when Ms. Mary drilled into a nerve that was not sufficiently dulled with painkillers. She responded in the manner I hoped she would, but I couldn’t help but think of what I might do if my captors not only didn’t stop when they hit that nerve, but they continued to explore the extent of my pain to get me to do whatever they wanted. We’d all love to think we would be that heroic captive who never talked, but receiving a drill to a tender, exposed nerve reminds us why we revere those who endured what we cannot even imagine. I thought about how much I might hate the people doing this to me while they were it, and I thought about how glorious it would be for me when they decided to stop. 

When the dentist finally decided I had enough, I appreciated his mercy so much that I felt grateful. It’s over, I survived, and I appreciated his contributions to my survival. The Stockholm syndrome suggests that the captive might appreciate their captors mercy for stopping. Those who study this effect say it doesn’t always happen to captives, but it’s obviously happened so often that we’ve developed a term for it. For those who want to understand how this anomaly might happen, try going ten years between dentist visits. When the scraping, grinding, and drilling finding stops, it feels like they’re being merciful, kind, and sympathetic, and the euphoria you feel might lead you to inexplicable feelings of affection that you don’t have for people who have never drilled anything into your face for a couple hours.

***

The thing about going to the dentist is that it’s voluntary. If we want to keep our teeth, and keep them in such good shape that they might last for most of our lives, we must visit the dentist biannually. Yet, it’s still voluntary. When we don’t visit the dentist’s office regularly, no one will think less of us, because no one will ever know. They might see the destruction of our teeth, over time, but no one suspects that it has anything to do with the fact that we haven’t visited a dentist’s office in a while. They just cringe when we smile, and they think less of us, but they don’t make the association. 

My dad had a miracle cure for bad teeth, milk. He thought the calcium in milk helped preserved his teeth so well that he didn’t have to brush, and he didn’t visit a dentist’s office for most of his life. He thought milk, and the calcium therein, were the miracle cures to maintaining oral health to the point of having his natural teeth into his old age. A high school friend of mine never brushed his teeth either, and he never visited the dentist’s office. His miracle cure was Listerine. Both men found the error of their philosophy in “the most painful experience I’ve ever had” when they eventually found their teeth so painful that a visit to the dentist proved to be the lesser of two evils. 

If they hadn’t volunteered this information, we would’ve never known, because no one lauds a person for responsibly visiting a dentist biannually, and no one talks about a person who doesn’t. “There goes Bud, he hasn’t visited a dentist’s office in ten years.” I’ve never heard anyone say this, or anything else, about a person regarding the regularity of their dentist visits. There’s no peer pressure, parental pressure, or any form of pressure, other than internal, to routinely address what could be a problem if we don’t.

“It’s voluntary? You mean I don’t have to subject myself to pain if I don’t want to do so? I have to be self-motivated to subject myself to the pain involved? Even those who regularly visit the dentist responsibly experience some pain in every visit? Who, in their right mind, would do this on a biannual basis?”

“The longer you wait the more painful it will be.”

“So, the only motivation to endure regular visits, and the resultant pain involved, is to stave off the prospect of more pain?”

Most of the rewards for enduring everything Ms. Mary has at her disposal on a biannual basis, to maintain a healthy mouth, are not short-term. If we maintain that regular schedule, it’s possible that we might never experience a toothache. Yet, if we never have a toothache, how much do we appreciate it? If there are so few tangible, short-term rewards, what are the long term ones? Well, if we’re lucky enough to live to our 70’s, 80’s, and beyond, we might be able to luxuriate in the idea that we’re one of the few in our retirement community who still have most, if not all, of our natural teeth, but we’ll have to wait decades to lord that over our peers. How will they respond to that? What will be our lifelong reward for having the various dentists and their Ms Marys drill into our face for a couple of hours two times a year for decades? If we’re lucky enough to live that long, we might one day receive nothing more than an unceremonious shrug from that guy who is now forced to wear dentures.