A Journey of Healing

by Linda Miller-Hart
(Boulder, CO, USA)

Dental care was not a priority in my family, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. We had a few checkups, a lot of work, and other physical touching. When I was seven he raped me. He told me every time I brushed my teeth and they bled it was a reminder of how bad I had been. He told my mom that it took so long because I wouldn't cooperate and let him do the work. I was disciplined with the belt when Dad got home. I had no words then for what had happened, and no one to tell. When it came time for my next appointment I threw such a fit that Mom gave up, and said I wasn't worth the money anyway. The belt came out again, but I had won.
I didn't see a dentist for fifteen years. He pulled two molars and I had a lot of work to be done. An oral surgeon removed severely impacted wisdom teeth. That dentist retired before I could go back again.
Another ten years went by. My husband took our children to their dental appointments. I finally tried again, this dentist was willing to use the nitrous gas even for cleanings. He let me cry when I needed to. For two years I had a good relationship and things were improving. I was working a therapist to deal with my childhood issues. A week before I had an appointment, the dentist and his wife committed suicide. I took that as a personal message, and ran back into my fears.
Over the next ten years I tried going to various dentists, male and female, but I didn't go back to anyone. Finally I tried a friend's dentist, I wrote him a letter to be included in my chart that told him my whole story and he listened. The nitrous gas was used every visit. It worked until he got a new assistant who said I was a wimp for asking to have the gas for a cleaning; in tears I tried to explain why only to be shamed with her comment that it had been over 30 years and I should be over it by now. I got up and left. There was no follow-up from the office. Two weeks later a molar broke, there was no way I was going back, there wasn't any pain anyway.
Now in my 50's I have done more work on all my childhood issues. The area near that broken molar started to hurt, a little at first then a lot. I realized I had a choice to do nothing and let whatever it was get worse or find someone who could deal with it. I had saved a direct mailing card (for three years)from a local dentist who said their specialty was dental phobic patients; they were on my insurance plan so I called and asked about the office. There was a cancellation for the next day so I took it before I could chicken out. All their intake paperwork was online, the last question was open ended, "what did I want them to know", I typed that I was trying to do the best I could. My goal of treatment was to not die. I also wrote a one page summary of my history and experiences.
Armed with my paperwork I cried as I opened the door to their office. The office administrator greeted me by name, offered me a kleenex and came around to sit with me to go over the paperwork. She cried as she read my letter, and promised they would take care of me and that I would be safe there. I felt really heard. At the start of any visit is the offer of a paraffin dip for your hands, lavender scented, peaceful! It's a smaller practice and Lisa made sure everyone read my letter and knew my history. The dentist took her time, took x-rays and pictures; the problem tooth wasn't the broken one, but the one next to it which needed a root canal. Together we made a plan for laser cleaning, the root canal (referral) and the cavities. They offer assorted drinks either before or after, I had a frappicino to celebrate my survival.
There were several visits over the next couple of months, each one was a little easier to go through the doors, each one ending with a frappicino. Their attention to all the details really add up: warm welcoming greetings, lavender hand dip, warm neck wraps, snuggly blankets if you're cold, a back vibrating chair, your choice of music or tv, regular checking in and offering a break when needed. The dentist asked me to call her at home and let her know how the root canal appointments went. There is almost always a follow-up call after a visit, just to check in and see how I am doing. When I decided to upgrade to a new power toothbrush, Shanda explained this was a new design and the best way to use it. She told me to stop flossing until my next visit when she could show me a better way to do it.
Brushing my teeth slowly went from a form of self flagellation to self care that was enjoyable. I learned that flossing isn't about cutting the gums each time, but cleaning the sides of the teeth. After 50 years of indifference, taking care of my teeth has become important. Some of the fear is still there, especially around some of the major work left to be done. But I know that I have found a place where it's safe to be myself, where they won't shame me over my past but encourage me for my future. And a frappicino will always mean that I am a survivor and can face whatever my past or future has for me.

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