the dentist

You know those nightmares where your teeth just fall out of your mouth? It happened to me in real life last February. I was sitting on my couch one night, munching on some Cheetos, and an old dental crown just…fell out. Of my mouth. I had one of those hysterical reactions where you can’t decide whether to laugh or cry, called my mom, then made a list of emergency dentists to call the next morning.

I don’t go to the dentist because I hate going to the dentist. I don’t think I had any particularly bad experience at the dentist as a kid – my parents took me regularly, and I always needed something fixed – I just hate the experience. I hate sitting immobilized in that chair, staring up at the ceiling while someone else picks and prods in my mouth. I hate the feeling of that tiny hook they use to get the tartar off your gums, and I hate the way the drilling shudders through your skull when they have to clean something out. I hate going to the dentist, so I just didn’t go.

For, like, seven years.

It turns out that avoiding the dentist is a very bad plan for…avoiding the dentist. The morning after my hysterical tooth-falling-out episode, I called around to find a dentist that could accept a new patient for an emergency procedure. Several places told me no, but I finally got a “yes” from Riccobene and Associates Dentistry, right around the corner from my house. I showed up later that morning filled with dread and anxiety and, to be honest, not a small amount of shame about the way I’d neglected my own self.

Dr. Austin and the team of dental hygienists looked in my mouth, said, yep, that crown sure did fall out, and fixed me right up. And then they said, well, you should probably come in for, like, a regular exam to see what else needs fixing. And I said, sure, but let’s wait until after my month-long sabbatical in March, because Lord knows going to the dentist is not included on the list of things that bring me respite and relief.

In April, I went back. And then I went back again. And again. And again, and again, and again and again. I have been to the dentist TWELVE times this year, all told. Dr. Austin and her team replaced old fillings, did a couple new ones, cleaned my teeth with a WATER THING instead of that horrible old metal pick, sent me to an endodontist to see about re-doing an old root canal gone bad and, when that turned out not to be feasible, pulled an old rotten tooth right out of my mouth. They set me up with flossing instructions and a shiny new electric toothbrush. On Halloween, I went for a 6 month check-up and, for maybe the first time in my adult life, emerged from the visit CAVITY-FREE.

I hate going to the dentist. Every time I went into the office, I told them that, and every time, they responded with patience, kindness, humor and care. I drug so many years of anxiety and shame with me into that dental chair this spring, feeling terrified and panicky, mortified about the state of my teeth, and embarrassed by my mortification. My blood pressure, which they took before every procedure, was off the charts. I have new breathing techniques and meditation destinations, now. If you’re reading this, then I probably prayed for you from that dentist’s chair this spring, because I prayed for every single person I could think of during those procedures in order to distract myself from the terror and anxiety and fear. I read about sedation dentistry – where you’re under anesthesia for the duration of whatever procedure you’re having – and seriously considered it, even though it would have meant spending MORE thousands of dollars in dental bills.

But here’s what happened, at every single one of those appointments this year: I showed up, wracked with fear and worry and shame, and I was received with gentleness, understanding, and compassion. Every. Single. Time. Dr. Austin explained everything in minute detail, which is my love language. Jon, who was my hygienist several times, taught me more about 80s pop music than I ever hoped to learn, keeping up a constant monologue for HOURS to calm me. Another hygienist told me all about her nieces and nephews and what a great place that office was to work in. Another woman, when she learned I was a pastor, spent a solid half-hour detailing her recent molar pregnancy (If you are not a pastor, you may not know that this is an inevitable result of telling someone you are a pastor: they either apologize for their sinful living OR pour our their stories of vulnerability and pain. And, honestly, if you want to be distracted from your own dental discomfort, just do a quick google of what a molar pregnancy entails. Whoa.). One hygienist was pretty quiet, but managed, in her silence, to convey such a depth of care and compassion that I felt rocked to sleep.

What I’m saying is that these precious people saw me, heard me, refused to judge me. They took me in, offered gentle humor and clear explanation, and then they did what they do every single day: they healed me. Literally. They extracted the rottenness that was festering inside of me, and filled it back up with newness. They did not make fun of me for letting the rot grow. They did not shame me for being so wracked with guilt. They did not tell me it was my fault, or chide me for neglecting my dental health. They didn’t criticize or blame me one single time. They just took me in and had compassion on me, told me a joke and got to work fixing what was wrong.

I know, because I have had a lot of conversations about going to the dentist this year, that many people have dental horror stories: botched root canals and criminal prices, callous doctors and unending pain. I am really grateful that this place had an open appointment the day my tooth fell out of my mouth, that I somehow stumbled, blindly, into their care.

And it’s hopeful, you know? That there are people out there – in my case, literally right around the corner – who are showing up day in and day out to receive hurting people with open arms and zero judgement, welcoming us into their care with a joke and a smile, sitting us down, fixing what’s broken, removing the rotten pieces and…healing us. Every single day. Right around the corner.

Thanks be to God.

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