In order to gather up some inspiration for blog posts, I’ve signed up to The Isolation Journals – a series of writing prompts from a group of authors, writers and artists, sent to my inbox each day. I found out about it through Maggie Rogers’ Instagram page and I thought it would help stretch my writing topics that little bit further. I don’t know if I will necessarily write a post for every prompt, though I’m confident there’ll be at least a few that resonate with me.
The prompt I received yesterday is on the theme of being asked the question, “How are you?” and the answer that usually follows, “Fine”. The reality is there are many times in our lives when we are not fine, but we say we are anyway. This writing prompt has asked us to put ourselves in a moment where we were not fine, but lied and said we were. Why did we do it? Whose feelings were we trying to save? What do we wish we had said?
That time I wasn’t fine at the dentist
The story that springs to mind when I read this prompt is the time I got a wisdom tooth taken out. Yes, a dentist story. Apologies in advance for anyone who hates the dentist, I promise this story has lessons beyond the dated magazines and sterile white rooms.
This all happened a few years ago when I was in my early twenties. At the time I’d already had two other wisdom teeth taken out, so I knew what I was in for. I had this appointment booked months in advance, and had even been putting money aside for when I needed to hand over the equivalent of a whole paycheck.
Come the day of the appointment, I walked into the room and met the specialist that would be performing the procedure. It was a tall woman and I can’t even remember her name. She asked me to sit down, and I mistakenly went to sit in the dentist chair. “Oh no, come and sit here, we need to talk first,” she said. Over I went and sat on a stool and there she stood in front of X-rays of my teeth. She went on to explain the risks of having wisdom teeth removed, though it escapes me what the exact details were. I nodded along and said I was fine with everything going ahead.
She then convinced me that I should only have the one tooth removed, instead of two, but that it was ultimately my decision. “Your body, your choice” is what she said to me. I was a bit confused that she, the expert, was asking me to decide whether I should have my teeth removed. I told her this and she again told me that I needed to make the decision. I said that while I appreciate the risks of having wisdom teeth taken out, I had been advised to have two removed by my usual dentist and that’s what I was here for, but if she wanted to take just one out, then that’s also fine. She is the specialist after all.
After a lot of back and forth, in the end I realised what she really wanted me to say was, “Yes, I just want one tooth taken out, not two, thank you for your advice.” For the sake of getting on with the appointment, that’s basically what I told her and I resigned myself to the fact I’d have one wisdom tooth remaining.
During the procedure is when things became pretty dire. As she tried to hold my mouth open with a plastic block, and as I struggled to keep my mouth open, she said to me with the assertiveness of a personal trainer, “Come on! This is for a child!” I felt like I’d already failed and was not a good patient. First the one tooth interrogation and now the shame of my body not working how it should.
Eventually my mouth stayed open and she was able to carry on with removing my singular wisdom tooth, though not without a sense of forcefulness I hadn’t experienced before. With every jolting movement and the sheer look of determination she held as she prodded around my mouth, I felt like I had no control of my body, and hadn’t consented to any of this. I’ve been to the dentist many times over the years, and this was by far the most unpleasant experience I’d had in a dentist chair. Maybe it was a good thing I was only getting one tooth out, at least the appointment would be over sooner.
Once the procedure was over 30 minutes later, I sat up and took a deep breath. That was not what I was expecting, at all. My mouth felt numb but fine, and I soon I felt a rush of heat through my face before I burst into tears. Straightaway the woman attended to me with a bedside manner I didn’t know existed. “Oh my goodness, are you okay? Where does it hurt?” The truth was I wasn’t in any physical pain at all – I’ve always had a high pain threshold and this was no different. The truth was I felt like I’d just emerged from some sort of an initiation gone wrong. I felt beaten down, like I’d been invaded and had something taken away from me. I couldn’t stop crying, sobbing even, long enough to utter out any words. I eventually lied and said to her, “It’s okay, I’ve just had a bad day at work.”
A bad day at work was my way of saying that she had played no part in how I was feeling. This, of course, was completely untrue. Maybe I didn’t want to try and unpack how I was feeling, maybe I didn’t want to hurt her feelings and disrespect her as a medical professional, maybe I just couldn’t be bothered and wanted to go home. Somehow, this woman had the audacity to ask me what I do for work. “I work in child protection,” I told her. I worked in child protection policy, I was not a front line worker by any means, so I knew it was a hollow answer. She nodded like she vaguely understood, perhaps she knew I was lying and just went along with it. Eventually she let me go and directed me back to the waiting room where I got to pay for what had just happened.
What I really wish I’d told her, but didn’t, is that I was crying because of how she had spoken to me and how forceful she was, not because my mouth was in any pain. While she had told me only moments before, “Your body, your choice,” my body hadn’t felt like mine at all. I know it sounds ridiculous that I’d just had a tooth removed and instead I was crying over someone’s words, and I can assure you it baffles me too. Maybe if I’d told her the truth we could have had spoken about it. She could have learned something, been better informed about how different people handle these procedures.
For the record, I do have respect for dentists and what they do. Years of study to help us chew our food with ease, smile with confidence, keep our teeth in a straight line and fill them in when they start to fade. I was disappointed I’d had one this one bad experience, because I’d had good experiences otherwise.
The lesson in all of this that I will carry beyond the dated magazines and sterile white rooms, is to be honest with dentists, doctors, anyone, when you don’t feel comfortable. Say why you’re really crying. Tell the truth, even if your voice shakes. If you’re not fine, say why, it could help the person improve and it could mean a better experience for the next person, or even better, some reassurance and relief for yourself.