Whenever I see her, she is dressed in gray from head to toe, like she stepped out of a silent black and white film. Her face is expressionless and her hair colorless. She is dressed simply with not a thread or inch of skin drawing any attention to herself. Many of you would scarcely notice her.
But I always feel her coming — I can feel her silent footsteps approaching, my heart races, my face feels hot and I literally want to crawl out of myself — she nears ever closer. Her gaze in no way searches in my direction. I mean nothing to her. I do not exist. But for those seeming-like-a-lifetime moments, all I can see, feel and sense is her.
She is Fear. Some of you may know her by another alias: anxiety, insomnia — call her whatever you want — she’s a bit of a joy sucker in my life that I have learned to manage.
As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten better at letting my best friends Rationality and Clarity in the front door while letting the creepy Freak let herself out the back. I also have picked up many tricks and tools for dealing with Fear. Sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t sleep enough. Many things don’t scare me though: traveling to new places, meeting new people, or making impractical goals like having a book with my name on it one day.
But inform me that I have to get a procedure done at the dentist and I would rather walk the plank. Naked. In shark infested waters. With a nosebleed and 10 hangnails.
This was never a problem until, in my college years, saving money by going to our local dental school instead of a legitimate office seemed like a good idea. I had several friends who were students there and it was insanely cheap. But it takes an eternity, which isn’t always fun when you are stuck with this head-gearish rubber dam clipped to your face. By a show of hands, who hates rubber dams? Whoever invented those must be a real psychopath. I couldn’t breathe, surely couldn’t talk and I had a panic attack. Which is really embarrassing when you have cute college-age guys around.
That was the first time I met Fear.
This was an ongoing battle, this fear of dentistry, until I met a dentist in Iowa who (no lie) had taken courses in hypnosis. Yes, hypnosis. Not the follow a string kind, but as he described it, it’s all about his carriage, how he feels and leads the situation.
For me, it’s not the pain. It’s not the drilling or the needle. It’s the feeling that I am NOT. IN. CONTROL. That I am stuck. Trapped. (Cue spooky organ music) F-O-R-E-V-E-R.
It’s even crazier, as I process it, that it’s also the fear of the Fear. That I don’t want to feel that heart-pumping, freak out feeling ever again. It’s like being pushed off the slide as a kid before you’re ready and you think you’re going to die, but you only skin your knee.
So, while giving me a root canal years ago, my dentist chatted, soothed and patched up my rotten tooth, and I did it. Tha-ree hours with a rubber dam, though he did trim it and let me see the procedure through a mirror.
After that I had no anticipatory fear for quite some time. She didn’t even stop by to stay hello. I slept great, woke up peacefully and had absolutely no feelings of dread the morning of any following appointments. The next time I needed fillings (it’s so unfair that people with dentistry fears also have terrible teeth) I was calm as creepy yoga music on Pandora, except for when my tongue felt so fat and heavy I worried it might flip a U-ey and go down my throat. And I would be left flopping around the examine room floor going “igck, agck, icgk” like a trout on the creek bank taking his last dying breaths—gills a flappin’.
Where were we? Oh, yes no fear or crazy thoughts…
I will be forever indebted to him that at the peak of my phobia, he was there to gently talk me down from the ledge. I’m grateful that I have learned to use my thoughts to control my emotions well enough that I can muscle through my annual appointments. I tell myself “They are here to help me. They will make my teeth feel better. They will help me not look like a hillbilly. I can do this. I can do this….”
Luckily, my high school acting experience comes in handy as all my children love going to our amazing dentist and I am wholly convincing that I love to go to! Someone please give me my golden statue now. High schoolers, reading this column: drop the algebra—take the theater class. Your children will be much healthier psychologically, though they will need tutors once they pass third grade.
Nowadays, though my dental fear is fairly well-managed, my unfriend Fear hangs around more than I’d like her to. I’ve learned that it’s exhausting trying to fight to keep her outside the door. I still feel her coming. She still is shapeless and gaunt and haunting but she no longer has power over me. When I feel her come around, I just smile and wave. And hand her a gift card to Target to get herself a new dress—girl needs to get some color on those gangly arms.