Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Death Story: Version Two

When I was a child, my parents taught me to brush my teeth every night and every morning, and at some point they taught me to use dental floss. I don't remember having any special fights about this, or any special feelings about it.

I first remember going to the Dentist when I was about six (perhaps a couple of years after I started going to the barber--but that's another story). I don't remember that being a very intense experience either. As I got older-- about 8-- I started having cavaties--which was not shocking in my family, my mother's kin all had "soft" teeth, as they said in those days, and lots of cavaties and dental work.

I do remember there being pain in the dental work--there were slow grinding, noisey drills in those days, no streaming water, and the dentist was at first reluctant to give children novocaine. It hurt. I do remember getting novocaine once or twice and I didn't like having my tongue numb, it was scary.

As I got to be about 10, I entered a phase of "super masculinity"--I went barefoot in summer even when the pavement was hot, I wore a "sheath" knife whenever I could, I went hunting and loved guns, and I took pride in being tough and not minding pain. As part of this, I became proud of my ability to have cavaties filled without crying or yelling and pretending I was indifferent to the pain.

Skip many years.

I am 38 years old. I am in the dentist's chair. He is holding my mouth open with some kind of instrument and he is saying: "Oh no! I can't believe what I am seeing. I can see the cavaties without even an X-ray. And your gums are bleeding and I haven't even started to work on them. When was the last time you went to a dentist? How often do you brush your teeth?" Do you Floss?"

I am filled with shame. Fortunately I don't have to answer his questions, because I can't speak. He is holding my mouth open with a cold metal instrument. I haven't been to a dentist for three years. I usually brush my teeth in the morning, but almost never at night. I almost never floss. (I also smoke cigars, eat lots of sweets, and drink a fair amount of wine and beer).

The dentist goes on with his exam, identifies several teeth that need filling, one or two that might need crowns and/or root canals. When he is finished examining my teeth, my mouth is full of blood and my gums really hurt. He tells me to make several appointments.

He also gives a lecture, the gist of which is that I am probably going to lose all of my teeth if I don't start brusing and flossing twice day, using oral rinses, and having my teeth cleaned twice a year. He lets me know that he is schocked my neglect of my teeth and he can't believe that someone who is middle class and has a Ph.D. could be so self destructive.

As I leave his office, I am filled with shame and fear. This is a familiar experience because I have left dentist's offices in several states over the past 15 years with the same lecture and the same feelings. I have usually only gone to each dentist once or twice, before I move, and wait a substantial amount of time before going to a new Dentist.

As I calm the fear and shame, I ask myself, "Why don't I take care of my teeth?" And more particularly why is that these dental lectures (and my parent's teachings about what happens if you don't take care of your teeth) have no effect on my behavior.

I introspect on these points for a while. I come to an insight. The fear that the dentist's evoke in me is not motivating because I am already avoding terror and the additional invitation to be fearful, only strengthens my avoidance and denial.

But what am I afraid of? I was never really afraid of the pain of going to the Dentist. And the dental experience had become much less of an ordeal than in my childhood--better anasthesia, highspeed drills, water pumped into the drill site, headphones with the stoothing music of my choice.

I also was aware and believed entirely, that if I took care of my teeth, I would have less pain, fewer cavaties, less need for dental procedures, less expense. And, when I let myself think about it, I was certainly afraid of losing teeth. So why was I finding it so hard to change my behavior?

I pushed myself to keep asking this question for a couple of days. I kept coming back to the insight that all of the fears that the dentist was quite effective in arousing in me clearly were already there but not in consciousness most of the time. But bringing them consciousness didn't seem to be doing a bit of good in getting me to follow his regime. Just as it hadn't helped when all of those other dentists said the same things and touched on the same fears.

Finally I got it. An acceptance of the fact that my teeth are perishable and are subject to decay and even mortality, meant that I had to accept my own mortality. I had been pretending that my teeth would last forever and that so would I. To brush them "religiously" was to admit that they were vulnerable. And so was I. Going to the dentist and having to confront the evidence that they in fact were decaying and deteroirating and moving toward mortality, was also evidence that my existence was also moving me toward mortality. I didn't want that consciousness of Death.

This is my Death Story number two. In this story I am terrified of dying. It is so overwhelming that I cannot face any evidence that my body has a limited life span and is wearing out. In this story, I am going to prove that I can live forever, because my body will not wear out and I don't even have to take care of it. In fact, I can abuse it. I can be overweight, I can not exercise except when I want to, I can eat and drink what I want and when I want, I can not go any medical providers. I can ignore my family inheritance of fairly early heart disease and heart attacks and fairly early cancer. I am going to live forever. The alternative is unthinkable, unimaginable and unacceptable. I can brush my teeth when I want to and I do not have to go to the Dentist until I am ready. I don't have find a meaningful way to face death because I am not going to die!

1 comment:

  1. That is an interesting take on a topic with which I can well indentify. I've always hated going to the dentist and have frequently avoided it until I felt that I had to. I've never thought of it in terms of mortality other than thinking sometimes I might die while in the dentist's chair. I do not like any aspect of dental work including the smells, sounds, and discomfort.

    What you say in the last paragraph I can certainly see. A lot of my personal health neglect I would attribute to laziness, but I do have a similar feeling of immortality as you have described.

    Good story.