Tears in my ears

A Kathleen Lipinski landscape, such as might have been seen in my real dentist's office

A Kathleen Lipinski landscape, such as might have been seen in my real dentist's office

In Which I Disgrace Myself at a Dentist's Office
(Not, Alas, for the First Time)

Although I live in a metropolis, I go to my little hometown to see the dentist because I've been going there since I was a child and who wants to look around for a new dentist?  No one. So, I drive at least 30 minutes to get there, which is not ideal in the middle of the workday, but the drive is beautiful and so is the dentist's office. It's in a little office suite with other tooth specialists of various sorts (back in middle school, I got my braces a few doors down [tears were shed]) under a modest grove of redwood trees. It has good windows so you can think about trees instead of teeth. The waiting room is a place of perfect calm: white walls, cushioned benches, muted tones, one potted ficus, more windows, a small painting of a bird, a larger painting of a local landscape. It is what a waiting room should be. It is a good place to kind of/sort of not freak out about imminently having someone put metal sticks in your mouth. I've been going there since i was a child. Over the years, there have been some personnel changes, but I've managed to build enough of a relationship with some hygienists that I can relax a little (there is gum recession. there are places that were you to poke them with a metal stick, I would reflexively rip your arm off).

Recently, I got yet another letter from the dentist who, having long ago moved on to the greener, indeed dollar-colored, pastures of cosmetic dentistry, finally gave up trying to manage two practices and passed along his remaining patients to some other guy. Whatever. I never see the dentist anyway. My relationship is with the wielder of the metal stick, with the receptionist, with the bird painting in the lobby.

Today was not a great day to have to leave town. I had a headache and possibly a blossoming sore throat. There were things to be done at work. A lot of things. But I need my teeth, so I went. I arrived just in time and walked into the familiar lobby.  No one was at the reception desk. "Hello?  Hello?" someone called from the back.  "Hello!" I called back. A woman I didn't recognize walked out.  "Are you here to see Doctor Blahdyblah?" I honestly didn't know who I was there to see, but I assured her that I had an appointment.  "Dr. Blahdyblah's office is across the way," she explained "we're leasing this office."  I just stared at her.  She led me across the way to some door I'd never had the occasion to open and left me to it.

It was a dentist's office. That much is true. A dentist's office with not one person in it I'd ever seen before. A dentist's office with plastic chairs in the bird-painting-less lobby, wood laminate trim on the reception desk and lurid green paint on the walls. A dentist's office where the exam room was clearly visible from the reception desk and appeared to have fashioned itself after a nail or hair salon. A row of chairs all in one long line, small partitions between them, cubicle-style. A dentist's office with windows looking out over the wrong tree. 

I fucking hated this dentist's office.

I was handed a new patient form by a friendly stranger and I did what any grown woman would do. I began to cry.  I took my form over to the plastic chair and tried to fill in the pertinent medical history while tears streamed down my face. The more I chastised myself for behaving in this disproportionate and humiliating manner, the less able I was to stop. Was I crying because I'm afraid of the dentist? Was it because I felt I'd been duped? Was it because when I left work, we were still in the throes of communication logistics about a young man's suicide? Was it because I was exhausted and very likely coming down with the Traditional Christmas Cold?  All those things, probably.

Whatever the reason, when a different stranger came out to collect me for the actual cleaning, I just cried harder. I should have just left, but I'd come all that way and I'm a periodontal high risk case with three yearly cleanings instead of two and surely I'd stop crying eventually.  I did sort of, until I would think about what a complete spectacle I'd made of myself and then it would start up again--politely, silently, like a slow leak. The hygienist kept telling me how great I was doing. When someone tells you in a soothing tone that you're doing great, it usually means the opposite. I've learned this in other health care situations. She and I were doing okay though. I wrapped my arms around myself tightly and dug my nails into my arm and she tried not to do anything that would make me rip her arm off.

Then the dentist came by. Someone had tipped him off about me: Crazy Crying Lady. He was in major management-of-the-mentally-unstable mode.  "How arrrrrrrrre you?" he sang.  "Not great," I said, "but we're working it out." I said, meaning, "please go away now. I am holding it together by a thread and I can't talk to you rationally, which embarrasses me. Also, I hate your office."  He didn't intuit the unspoken bits, unfortunately, and persevered, saying a lot of things and nodding like a cartoon of sympathy "A lot of transitionnnnnn," he cooed.

The tone he was employing tapped right into my misery/humiliation cortex and the slow leak became more like a faucet accidentally left on in the bathroom, a steady stream. At this point, since I was wearing enormous protective eyeglasses and lying with my head slightly lower than my feet, I just let it happen. This unknown, patronizing cartoon dentist sing-songing away while tears slipped constantly from the sides of the glasses, following their natural downstream current straight into my ears, the overflow absorbed into my hair.

He suggested, ever so carefully, that he might examine my teeth sometime when I was "feeling better." "Yep," I said, twin rivulets flowing freely. What he didn't know, of course, is what was clear to me the instant he began speaking. Simply that I will never be back. Even if I could bring myself to face those people again "when I'm feeling better," I see no reason to drive thirty minutes to lie prone and helpless in an open-plan exam room painted by a colorblind sadist ever again. I'm sure there's somewhere closer to home where I can disgrace myself without having to pay the bridge toll.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take some vitamin C and cry myself to sleep.