Tortures and Rewards

I hate the dentist. I try to go as rarely as possible, without ever forgetting that prevention is better than cure. The only passage I have retained from Thomas Mann’s chunkster, Buddenbrooks, is the part where one of the patriarchs dies from tooth disease because, trust me, it sticks in the mind. And so, out to thwart mortality again, I agreed finally to have my teeth cleaned by the hygienist. I had a vague memory of this not being exactly fun, but time will insist on dimming unpleasant experiences. She seemed a nice enough woman as she greeted me and conducted a little convivial chit-chat. And then she started to don riot gear – a pair of large sized safety glasses, a mask, and over the top of it all, a clear plastic shield like the police use when they’re getting the tear gas out. My god. I felt like suggesting that if whatever happened next was going to prove that threatening to her, then maybe we should call it off right now. But she was busy employing that dulcet tone that’s supposed to distract you from abject horror and introducing me to a ferocious piece of kit called a sonic scraper or a sonic blaster, I’m not sure now. It was definitely a sonic something, because I realized very quickly that it was a near cousin to the sonic screwdriver Dr Who uses to blast the daleks. Obviously he electrocutes them through the jawbone, too. It was exquisitely awful. I felt parts of my body deciding to try and escape, my right leg in particular had left the couch and was groping about for the floor. And then, of course, it struck me that that is why you get raised up the moment you lie down. Nothing to do with being at the right height for the dentist, because after all, they could simply lower their chairs. No, this is about preventing you from having the necessary traction to make a proper run for it. ‘Was that a bit sensitive?’ cooed the hygienist. ‘You’re doing very well.’ When this lie starts to come out, you know the worst is still to come.

What was next to go in my mouth, along with both the dentist’s fists, some small workbench for her tools and a suction plant, looked suspiciously like an enormous fish hook. With this instrument of torture, she proceeded to scrape away at my tooth enamel producing the sound of about a thousand blackboards being scratched by ragged nails inside my head. By now, I was trying every anxiety-reducing trick in the book, wriggling my fingers and toes to try to relocate my consciousness to some more peaceful part of me. This went on forever, and I got the sense that the hygienist was lost to her mission, zealously hunting down every last scrap of tartar, having completely forgotten I was there. Occasionally she twirled her fish hook like a majorette and made it glint in the spotlight. I kept telling myself she must be a perfectly nice lady normally, and it was only being on the receiving end of her tender attentions that was convincing me she was a sadist. Finally, we moved onto the tooth buffing part, which wouldn’t have been so awful – just a rotating brush and some extra gritty toothpaste – if I hadn’t had ten million nerve ends on screaming red alert. My body was still trying to rescue me, so the second she switched the machine off, I was trying to sit up. Unbeknownst to me, the bib that got put so swiftly around my neck when I arrived, turned out to be attached by leads to the back of my chair and I nearly garroted myself. My, but those dentists are cunning. ‘I know you’re longing to escape’ said the hygienist, with admirable understatement, ‘but I just want to show you how to floss properly. People so rarely go deep enough into the gum.’

But if my morning yesterday was less than pleasant, the evening redeemed it somewhat. I’d been intending to do yoga this year, and then I heard about a new t’ai chi class starting in the next village. I did t’ai chi years ago and enjoyed it at the time, but when I came to move into the next class up, the time didn’t suit. There were loads of people when I arrived, although it turned out that most of them were experienced club members, come along to help the first class go with a swing. After a short while of doing the movements, I had the strangest sensation of body memory, and the classes of eight years ago came flooding back. I learned in a beautiful dance studio out in Ely, with a sprung floor and mirrored walls, and my instructor then was a Chinese man who was a stickler for detail. We were barely allowed to take a step without his correcting our posture and placement. But I was glad to have had that attention to detail, as this class moved much faster. I love t’ai chi because it is all about gentle, contained movements. So much exercise is high impact, pounding the streets running, stretching muscles to their furthest point, thwacking balls with bats and rackets, kicking, punching, leaping, and it just doesn’t interest me. At the midpoint of the session, while we were having a rest, the experienced members went through the movements of ‘half a set’, that’s to say about 50 movements, all joined in a single flow. They were all ages, all shapes and sizes, and yet the sight of them together was incredibly graceful, and powerful, too. One of the things that attracts me to t’ai chi is that it takes place in silence; mediation in movement, some people call it, and it was the first time in years that I had felt happy exercising. And for the first time that day, I could appreciate having extra clean teeth to smile with.

21 thoughts on “Tortures and Rewards

  1. Re dentist–I totally sympathize. I have dentist issues. But I found a nice dentist who understands my terror and is a doll. I refuse to have the sandblaster used for cleaning teeth and they just use a pick. So keep looking, there are understanding dentists & hygienists out there.

    Tai chi is great for balance and is supposed to also keep energies flowing in a healthy way.

  2. LOL * a lot. – Sorry, but if you want sympathy you’ll have to be less funny!

    I’ve started yoga myself last year and am glad I did. You’ve piqued my interest in t’ai chi though with this idea of ‘meditation in movement’. Thanks.

  3. Oh my. That is too hilarious. But I sympathize; a couple of years ago I had a standing appointment with a hygenist. A few sessions with the sonic screwdriver was excellent motivation for me to floss more.

  4. Oh, my, I’m sorry about the dentist! I’m lucky and have a great dentist who takes care of everything in about 10-15 minutes and manages to make it not hurt very much. You describe your experience very well! And I love your description of t’ai chi. I always enjoyed the slowness and quietness of yoga. It was a revelation to learn that sometimes it’s harder to stay put than it is to move!

  5. That’s hilarious, Litlove! You have quite made my morning.

    Interestingly, I take the opposite view on the whole exercise thing. Give me a pavement to pound or a ball to whack or a bag to punch any day. I look at people doing t’ai chi on the beachfront, and while I think it’s all very peaceful looking, for me exercise is about something much closer to pain.

  6. This brought back agonising memories of the torture a hygienist I used to go to inflicted on me and she charged me the earth for it too. Now I go to a gentle dentist and like Lilian’s he only uses the pick. My teeth have never been better. And also lovely memories of yoga classes. I went to a day school on t’ai chi but sadly have never found a class.

  7. Your dentist sounds very scary – a soft-talking sadist. I like the sound of the t’ai chi although have always been more of a runner in the past. Certainly works for one of my exes (and she met a great guy there too).

  8. Sorry about the crazy hygienist. I have similar feelings about the dentist, having had a bad experience in the past, so I searched for someone known to be gentle. Now I actually get my teeth cleaned more often, because the more often you do it, the less it hurts–paradoxical but true. Also, I’ve done yoga for years, and love it, but would love to try t’ai chi. My husband says that Taoists believe that exercise should never strain the body–how lovely and un-American!

  9. My dentist is not so high tech–just rubber gloves and a mask over his nose and mouth. Why are dentist visits so excruciatingly painful–both what they’re doing to your gums and the noises they make? It takes a special personality to scrape teeth all day….one I’m glad I don’t have! 🙂 The t’ai chi sounds very nice and calming however–a nice balance to your morning.

  10. Oh dear. That’s exactly why I avoid the dentist as much as possible too. No matter how nice everyone might be the whole thing sets my nerves on end and the tooth polishing thing is exquisitely painful for all the reasons you describe. I floss religiously yet every time I see the dentist the hygenist asks, “your gums sure are bleeding, do you floss regularly?” One of these days I won’t be able to take it anymore and will certainly make some kind of snarky comment about how I’m sure my bleeding gums have nothing to do with the scraping and poking she has been subjecting my poor mouth to. Sorry, getting myself worked up there. I need some t’ai chi, something I would love to try sometime.

  11. From the ridiculous to the lovely to have the tai chi experience rescue your day from the dentist drill!

    I was once horribly fearful of the dentist, but I’ve managed to overcome it. Your description brought back some very unpleasant memories, I must say!

  12. Your dental experience cracked me up, Litlove. I was inspired by Attila the Dentist in my childhood, to avoid any and all dental work for many years. I have learned my lesson, however, and I am not diligent about spending time with that hygienist. You should probably schedule your T’ai Chi class after all future dental appointments, to remind yourself there are good things in life to balance the horrors.
    Plus, people who go to the dentist regularly, live longer!

  13. So sorry your trip to the dentist was so unpleasant. I’m headed to the dentist’s chair myself this week to have a tooth pulled (ugh!). And then, of course, that means many more trips to the dentist to have bridge work done. Luckily, my dentist doesn’t shy away from prescribing Valium. Of course, maybe if I could center myself with a t’ai chi session before going, I wouldn’t need the Valium?

  14. Stumbled here, and very glad I did.
    BTW,I think all dental hygenists are the same person. They say the same things, in the same tones and use the same medieval tools globally, it seems.
    Nothing like a little t’ai chi to get back on track and centered!

  15. Lilian – how fortunate to have a tame dentist! I shall have to try negotiation (or at least point blank refusal) next time. At the t’ai chi session, members of the club were telling stories of all kinds of injuries and ailments that had been soothed or improved by the exercises – which sounds to me like a very good thing. 🙂 Lokesh – I couldn’t really ask for sympathy for a simply hygienists’ trip, but in retrospect it was funny! Glad to hear you are getting on well with yoga – I so nearly did that, and may yet try. Teresa – Oh I agree – at the moment I floss religiously, but fear it’s like having just had the car valeted – inevitably the discipline and the good habits fade away….:) Dorothy – may I borrow your dentist? That sounds much better! I remember you saying you enjoyed your yoga and it certainly motivated me to find something similar. Doctordi – you are one of the world’s lions, and I am a mouse. It’s nice we can each appreciate the other in the virtual world at least! 🙂 Emily – great! I’ll draft you in as my body double another time. 😉 Charlotte – thank you! all sympathy gratefully received. There are much worse things than the dentist, but in their absence, it’s bad enough! Booksplease – clearly these kind dentists do exist and are not just a fantasy. If only I could find one around here! But then it was tricky finding a t’ai chi class too, hence the long break. Keep looking – they do turn up eventually. Pete – I don’t know about meeting men, but I did meet a very nice woman – an art teacher at the local college – and I hope she’ll be there again next week. I admire people who run but couldn’t do it myself. I would need to be being chased first. 😉 Gentle Reader – I am most encouraged by the comments from people who have searched for, and found, gentle and understanding dentists. I do want to take care of my teeth – I just don’t want to suffer. 🙂 T’ai chi is definitely the kind of exercise that encourages you to stay within the comfort zone. We did one exercise that involved simply rotating our hands at the wrists which apparently is an excellent workout for the lymphatic system. Now that’s the kind of thing I can get behind! 🙂

  16. Danielle – lol! It does take a special personality to scrape teeth all day! That remark is going to make me chuckle every time I think of it for quite some time. The dentist’s riot gear was alarming, but the t’ai chi was nice. I’m hoping I can attend class this week without anything to balance out! 🙂 Anne – thank you! hugs back. Stefanie – I loved your comment. Your hygienist is most certainly related to mine, and I swear there is a streak of sadism in there, even if politely polished up to look like concern. It seems against nature to make yourself bleed at the gums all the time, whatever they say! Iliana – oh I couldn’t agree more, and I’m glad you said that. All those medical offices make me panic too! Sometimes I wish I could revert to a medieval system whereby things drop off or wither and die and just get left in peace. 🙂 Kate – I’m so sorry! Much, much sympathy for the impending visit, and read all the comments by people who have persuaded their dentists to be kind and gentle. Clearly it can be done! Becca – what is your secret for conquering dental phobia? It’s clearly something I need to learn! 🙂 Qugrainne – I’d be delighted to live longer, so long as the extra time was taken up with yet more trips to doctors, dentists, opticians, etc! 😉 And Attila the Dentist made me laugh. I don’t eat sugar, so feel I ought to get some extra brownie points, but alas, no. Emily – oh I’d take the drugs if they’re on offer. 🙂 We are edging ever more towards stoicism in this country. Doctors here only prescribe valium in 2mg doses, which probably wouldn’t stun a fly. Take advantage of whatever’s on offer and the very best of luck with the bridgework. Hopefully there’s lots of anesthetic involved in that! Oh – it’s nice to see you – do add your url and then I can visit your blog, too. There is clearly a genus of dentists that is recognisable on a world wide scale – alas! 🙂 The t’ai chi was nice, though, and a good, calming end to the day.

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