I went to the dentist today. For the first time in 20 years. I take no pride in this epic neglect, and am ashamed of the insidious fear that I somehow embraced years ago -- a fear that all but ensured I'd never sit in a dentist's chair again. I can't tell you when my pervasive fear of dentists began, or how it was formed. I can't tell you why the thought of someone examining my teeth eventually became far more than an uncomfortable one -- because for you, it's probably that: merely an uncomfortable thought and experience -- or why it detoured into a rat-toothed breed of to-the-marrow terror.
I can't provide you or myself a tidy "why," perhaps the most crucial element in conquering an irrational fear.
For the past 20 years, this phobia dictated my life. I told no one. I became its slave. As the years went on, my fear of dentists was compounded by the fear of what might be happening inside my mouth, and what would be discovered were I to be examined. I've lost count of the times I've started awake, slick with sweat, from nightmares of tooth loss. Fear heaped upon fear.
I ignored warning signs of tooth pain; cavities, most likely. And for more than a decade, my tongue probed an ever-growing wall of tartar behind my front lower teeth that became so hard and large, it completely covered those teeth and nearly all of the gum below. I could no longer feel the contours of my individual teeth. It was like pressing your tongue against a ceramic bowl.
This specific, tangible representation of my situation inspired more dread within me than anything else I've ever known.
My girlfriend and I are moving to Colorado in two weeks, and she made it clear that visiting her dentist before our departure was something very important to her. She booked an appointment for me. I resisted, and eventually confessed my secret fear to her. She was supremely supportive and sympathetic. And because she was so supportive, I didn't bail.
I wanted to. I haven't the words to adequately express how desperately I wanted to. On the drive this afternoon, I gripped the steering wheel so tightly, my knuckles burned white. I prayed for a flat tire. I was pulled taut, could barely speak; red-line adrenaline revved through my capillaries.
I wept when I climbed into the dentist chair. I wouldn't open my mouth when the technician wanted to do an x-ray. I shuddered and sputtered, sounding stupid as the dentist -- a delightful, patient, round-faced 30-year veteran of the business -- tried to speak with me.
They'd pull out every tooth in my head. I was absolutely certain of this. Behold my mouth, a cathedral of neglect. Behold the ruination. Behold my lower front teeth -- rotten, bleeding, crumbling brown things -- tumbling onto my lips as the technician scraped that smooth wall of tartar with a fishhook.
But as the dentist spoke clearly and constructively, demonstrating his expertise and depth of knowledge, the feral thing inside me began to hush. There were no monsters here. And as the dentist commented confidently that the dental issues I described were common (did you know that most folks experience tartar buildup on their lower front teeth? it's due to their proximity to several enthusiastic salivary glands), I realized there were no monsters inside my mouth either.
I did the math, made a leap of faith, and let go. Two hours later, my tongue could feel the individual contours of those bottom teeth again, finally. For me, this is nothing less than a miracle. The woman I love and a man I'd never met changed my life today. They helped me slay a secret, decades-old, scheming, slobbering personal fear.
There are a handful of manageable issues to deal with in the weeks ahead. It's easy stuff. Maintenance will also be easy. My choppers are in surprisingly good shape. And if they weren't -- if the news had been much worse -- I believe in my heart that I would have accepted and embraced this, and taken steps to make things right.
For in the end, I realized that my fears were absolutely real ... but the monster fueling them wasn't.
I share this story with you because I know that you too have a scheming, slobbering personal fear. There's a beast prowling in the confines of your head that has dominated you and your actions for years. We all have at least one; I have several.
Perhaps you're terrified to love someone. Or leave your shitty job, or shitty spouse. Or go to the doctor to diagnose that mysterious lump. Or start writing, singing, pursuing a passion or starting a business. The fear you're feeling is legitimate, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. But the beast behind that fear may be a vapor, an engine powered by nothing more than decades of the worst kind of self-affirmation, and ignorance -- a fundamental lack of understanding.
I don't think you need to know the "why" to overcome this fear. I think you just need someone to believe in you: either a loved one, or yourself.
There are people in your life who believe in you. I believe in you. You can believe in you, too.
So come on, come with me. We're going to the dentist.