I went to see the dentist the other day. Turns out I didn’t get to see much of him at all, except his hands, as he was wearing a pale blue mask over his face. By the time I entered his white-walled room I felt like I was in a weird movie. I always get that feeling of being in someone else’s movie at the dentist. I think it’s dissociation.
As I lay down on the extremely comfortable chair and wished that I was somewhere else on a comfy chair, or there to get a tan instead of a mouth full of metal, I was handed a pair of coloured glasses to wear. Perhaps they wanted me to imagine I was at the beach because there was a large picture of a white sandy beach with clear blue water at eye level on the wall.
Or maybe the glasses were meant to make everything rosy. But the sunnies were more like SGD glasses than rose coloured glasses, “soft grey day” for those who don’t know, with a tinge of yellow light. Not the yellow light of a sunrise on still blue water but the eerie yellow light that follows a late afternoon thunderstorm when everything is still and waiting. I felt caught in that eerie yellow place waiting and watching. So, with his blue mask and my sunnies and the fact that he was sitting behind me I didn’t really get to see much of the dentist.
It was my first time at the dentist, this dentist anyway. I’ve been to lots of dentists before and have a mouthful of amalgam to prove it. My trips to the dentist started when I was about four. Maybe I was older, but I know it felt like I was four. My first dentist had a very dentist sounding name like “Dalton” or “Fulton” and called me his “little sausage.” I think he was referring to the shape of my body. Maybe he thought I had a high fat content. Maybe he was referring to his intention of pricking me with his sharp utensils when I was lying harmlessly on my back, as sausages do. He was very nice though and I quite liked him calling me his little sausage, in fact it is only now that I reflect on him calling me that, at the time, when I was four, I was too busy hyperventilating and watching what he was holding in his other hand to worry about what he called me.
Waiting is torturous when you’re four, especially when you hear the screams of other kids who have gone in before you, probably one of my siblings. Mum would book out the whole afternoon for us and get everything done at once. I think she used the dentist as childcare. We’d be left there all afternoon while Mum went off shopping. Fill them up on amalgam she must have called over her shoulder as she sped off to the shops. Or perhaps there were other conversations behind closed doors: “She’s been really naughty Doc, make her suffer.”
Then when she came to collect us our little white teeth would be dazzling with amalgam whether we needed it or not. Over the years of those childhood visits to the dentist every tooth in my head was plugged with amalgam. I’m not sure if part of the agreement was that we weren’t to have any anaesthetic or if that was the way of things back then and no else one had a needle to dull the pain either. Perhaps it was to teach us how to suffer.
So, as I sit and wait for this new dentist all these memories lurk on the periphery as I flick through a magazine showing me images of people who seem familiar. My body is remembering all those other trips to the dentist. Each time I hear a bang I wonder if it’s someone’s tooth being extracted though it seems to be coming from inside the wall. Then there’s the sound of a power drill and fine dust in the air. I listen for screaming but nothing comes. I’m so busy listening for sounds of suffering in other rooms that I don’t hear my name being called. Then I’m in the chair in the hands of the man in the mask and looking through the eerie yellowish “soft grey day” light of the glasses at the sandy beach and blue sky with their disordered colours because of the glasses I’m wearing.
“Do you like being a dentist?” I ask the hand before it can stop up my mouth.
There is a moment of silence and then an awkward laugh. I get the feeling he might prefer to be playing golf than peering into the decaying amalgam that is plugging up my teeth. He responds with some conjecture about how many hours dentists work. I only ask because I’ve heard that dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession but I don’t tell him that. I am interested in the wellbeing of the health professionals who treat me, perhaps for purely selfish reasons, but I like to imagine I am more altruistic than that. I suspect he thinks I’m just being a smart arse.
It’s like when I try to be funny people think I’m being a smart arse. When I’m around people who are funny I start to think I’m funny. I’m not sure why this happens or if it happens to other people who aren’t funny. Most of the time I know I’m not funny and I don’t try to be, though I do know some people who aren’t funny and always try to be.
When I try to be funny people look at me with that “who farted” look.
You get immediate feedback that way. That’s the reason I know I’m not funny.
It happened the other day when I was at the beach for the weekend with a large group of people, some of whom I’d only just met. I came back from an early morning walk and about ten people were sitting on the deck finishing their breakfast. When I stepped onto the deck someone said “Gwen said to say goodbye.” Apparently she’d gone home early to check on her (newish) partner’s gall bladder. I was in that zone of thinking I was funny because a couple of my friends who were there are very funny, and I’d got a few laughs myself the night before doing Zorba on the beach. “Not very romantic,” I responded, fast. Yes I’m fast. That’s when I got the who farted look and someone said, “He’s just had a gall bladder operation.” I looked down at the dog and went off into the kitchen. That’s just one example of how I’m not funny, I have a long list in my memory banks.
For some reason I start hearing the tune from “Little Shop of Horrors,” and seeing Steve Martin dancing around in his white jacket. I can’t remember the words, but I remember the theme. His mother wants him to be a dentist because as a child he throttled his teddy and pulled wings off butterflies. I don’t think that was good press for dentists but I do wonder why people become dentists. “Why do we do what we do?” I start wondering furiously to keep my mind off whatever is going on in my mouth. I discover that when my body is still my mind becomes activated. I am thinking at a million miles an hour.
If I was my own therapist I might diagnose myself with post traumatic stress, when it comes to dentists.
I want to tell the dentist, I don’t know his name yet, that I wasn’t being a smart-arse and please don’t make me suffer. I am four years old now that I am pinned to the chair and smelling those smells. It doesn’t matter how kind he is all I can see is Steve Martin holding up his drill with a gleeful look on his face singing those words I can’t remember and don’t want to remember.
I imagine myself in a movie to occupy my mind. Well in truth, it’s more like my mind is doing whatever it wants and I’m just going along for the ride, which might be why I feel like I’m in a movie. And there’s something about not being able to move and watching up as things pass in front of my eyes and people speaking around me as if I’m not there that always makes me feel like I’m in a movie.
It doesn’t happen that often, only at the dentist in fact. I think this one’s a murder mystery. I’m the murderee.
Possibly I’ve been buried under the floor and I’m looking up through the floorboards at my murderers as they pass the instruments of death and pain to each other, speaking as if they’ve forgotten I’m there.
I can’t hear what they’re saying from my shallow grave. I am perfectly still except for my eyes following the action. Perhaps I am gagged and bound, mouth stuffed with metal so I can’t scream, or didn’t scream. It’s like being in someone else’s movie and I’m a victim in this movie. I don’t know how the movie will end but I don’t think it will be happily ever after.
It strikes me that there is something weirdly intimate about being at the dentist, someone peering into my mouth, seeing intimate places that even my lover doesn’t get to see. It makes me think of going to the doctor and having them peer up other orifices and then having a chat
about the weather before I leave. I try to act like it’s normal but when people look into my orifices I always feel a bit … umm … don’t know what the word is really … a bit … exposed, vulnerable, too human?
It’s like they’re peeling back wrapping that I have spent years making pretty or at least presentable so I can walk in the world and then someone peers into some pink bit and I feel like they’re seeing me naked. Yeah yeah I know it’s their job. I get that but I still feel that feeling, like I’m four years old again trying to lie still with my eyes darting here and there imagining myself in a weird movie that I wish would hurry up and end so that I can take my hand away from my eyes.
Perhaps that’s why I ask my question, to cover my own vulnerability. Perhaps I am saying to him “I know you’re human too even though you’re hidden behind your white coat and blue mask.” Yes I think that is what I’m saying when I ask the question. I want him to remember his own vulnerability because I know that then he won’t hurt me as much, even if he is dreaming of golf. I don’t think I’d mind too much if he called me his “little sausage,” it might surprise me, and the nurse would probably raise an eyebrow. He might need to call me “medium sausage,” which doesn’t have the quite same ring as “little sausage,” because I’m larger now. I have noticed lately that my body is returning to its original shape, round in the middle.As I’m leaving I run my tongue around my clean smelling mouth. I step out into the bright sunlight and breathe in and sigh, free at last. PUBLISHED 18 DECEMBER 2011 CASTLEMAINE INDEPENDANT. Images supplied by Andrew McKenna.