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Why I'm Afraid Of Dentists

I have so many things I want to get off of my chest, and I just don’t know where to start.

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Dental Tools on a white background
Justin Fantl/Gallery Stock
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Dear Dentist,

We need to talk. It is you, not me. I have so many things I want to get off of my chest, and I just don’t know where to start.

How about my last visit? The appointment I made to come see you despite my strong dental anxiety? Anxiety that is in large part fueled by my inability to afford the work that my teeth deserve and by my past experience of being met with condescending lectures because I haven’t kept up with professional cleanings and flossing. But I booked the appointment anyway, and I did everything I could to make this time different, speaking with the receptionist and the dental hygienist prior to my visit to express my anxiety and lack of insurance, among other things. And when you walked in the room, I faced part of the problem head on.

“I have been really bad about flossing and I know that,” I said. I was hoping my admission would keep the lecture at bay. My hopes were dashed.

“You know, even without insurance, you should be flossing regularly. It is not something that you can just skip and expect us to fix in one visit. It takes just a few minutes in the morning and night.” You proceeded to teach me how to properly floss.

Could you tell that I desperately wanted to rip that paper bib off my chest and run for the door right then? Did you notice the tears forming in my eyes and the blood boiling beneath my skin? This was not a good start to our relationship. It made me feel this big (imagine me holding my fingers so close together they are actually touching).

I get it. Flossing is important. I understand that when I cut corners on my dental hygiene, your job becomes more difficult. I also understand that when you poke and probe my gums with that sharp, round-tipped tool and yell out measurements like 4, 5 and 6 that my gums are not in good shape. It is no surprise to me, because I see the blood on my gums on the rare occasion when I do, actually, floss. Trust me when I say this: I so desperately want to be a twice-a-day flosser. I really, really do. After every cleaning, I promise myself I will be that person. It always starts off great, too. I floss twice a day and I do it with a smile. I even go for two full rounds around the mouth just to be sure I didn’t miss any food particles. I start off very committed to the flossing life. I dream about my next cleaning when you won’t have anything to say except, “Wow, you have done a great job flossing!” I discover a sense of dental pride, and I love the way my regularly flossed mouth feels and looks. I love the new and improved me! This lasts for about one full week.

And then it stops. Sometimes gradually — the twice-a-day flossing becomes once a day and then three times a week, until eventually … NEVER. Other times it happens more suddenly. I just stop altogether. It is not a conscious decision to stop flossing. It is not a rebellious act on my part or the misunderstanding that flossing just isn’t that important. It is not a decision I make to spite the dentist. It just happens.

Life happens; it disrupts my flossing habits and it is the first of many things to just go. I am a mother; I work; I work out; I cook (kind of); I clean, or shuffle items around; and I organize life and care for four humans. When bedtime finally rolls around each day, I am utterly exhausted. By then, skipping flossing (or washing my face, for that matter) actually feels like an act of self-care. I am usually so tired that the extra few minutes that not flossing allows me are best spent sleeping.

And guess what? I have three children who also don’t floss! If I had six extra minutes of energy and motivation and caretaking in my day, I would floss their teeth. And I would do theirs before mine. I would stand there and pull that thread through each of their teeth with pride, care and love, and I would know I was offering them a better dental future than I gave myself. But I can’t do it. I have tried. It doesn’t work. I can’t do my teeth or their teeth or the dog’s teeth. I just can’t keep up.

So this is what I do: I do the best I can. Sometimes that means that I floss only when there is a goddamn popcorn kernel stuck between my teeth, and I can’t focus on anything until I get it out. Other times, my best is flossing three times a week, rinsing with coconut oil and brushing three times a day. My best changes from time to time, but I promise you, dentist, I will always give whatever 100 percent is on any given day. I am OK with that. I wish you were, too.

Someday in the distant future, when my kids are off at college or living in their own homes and taking care of themselves, I imagine I will be the twice-a-day flosser. I will also have a clean house, and perhaps the bags under my eyes will be smaller. I will be able to stay on top of it all, and my gums will measure a healthy 1 or 2. Maybe I will even have insurance to help pay for cleanings twice a year. Today is not that day. So I ask you, dentist, please be gentle with me, because getting my butt in for a cleaning is hard enough.

Bleeding gums