I’m not alone in having a certain amount of fear of dentists. I am unusual in that I don’t really have any reasonable excuse for it.

As a kid, I had pretty good experiences with dentists. I went to a small primary school in the rougher end of town, and the dentist was just a couple of minutes walk down the road. My mother would collect me from school and we’d go to see the dentist for my check-up, which would usually be fine. On the way out, I would demand sweets as a reward.

I was a good boy in most respects so I did as I was told and brushed my teeth. I kept them clean and mostly, didn’t worry.

There were just two instances where things went wrong.

The first was when the dentist announced that I needed a filling. This was a huge surprise, but we went ahead and got the filling and that, aged about 9 or 10, was that.

The second came in my teens. Cycling home from drama club in the pouring rain, my glasses so covered in water droplets that I couldn’t see a thing. I went SMASH into the back of a parked car.

The following things happened:

I picked myself up from the road and stood miserably surveying the damage. Glasses, bike, and teeth: all the most expensive things I owned at the time. My tongue gingerly touched the gap where my tooth had been and jumped away quickly as it sparked pain there. I peered closer at the parked car. There was a huge dent in it. Ooops.

Partly because I felt a bit shaky and in need of a sit down, partly because I wanted to phone my mum and this was in the Dark Ages before mobile phones, and partly because I have always tried to be an honest chap and do the Right Thing, I looked around me and saw that the damaged car was parked outside a house. A big house.

Leaving the wreck of my bike on the pavement, I walked up the front path and rang the doorbell. A woman answered, opening the door wide at first but then narrowing it somewhat. She looked terrified. “Yes?” she said.

“Hello,” I began. “I think I might have jutht damaged your car. I thycled into the back of it and there’th a big dent in it now.”

A man appeared over the woman’s shoulders. He gave me a funny look.

“Not our car,” he said. “Nothing to do with us.”

With that, he closed the door and I was left standing in the rain once more.

It was only as I walked back towards the mess of my bike that I realised I looked like a lunatic – my hair plastered to my skull by the rain, blood pouring from my mouth, ugly great cuts on the knuckles of both hands. That might explain the funny looks.

So then. What to do next? I remembered a friend lived only five minutes walk further down the road, so I picked up the bits of bike and spectacles (there was no sign of the tooth) and limped my way there. At the door, a friendly friend’s mum made a horrified expression, and ushered me inside. Tea, sympathy, and a lift back home followed in swift succession.

Where was I? Oh yes, teeth. Until that moment with the parked car, I’d never needed any serious dental treatment. But now I did, oh boy. Injections, drills, tools and whatnot shoved into my unwilling mouth one after the other. I emerged from it all with a false tooth, not quite the correct shade of yellow, firmly implanted into my gum.

Ah yes, my gum. By gum.

Teeth have not been uppermost in my mind ever since. I did my twice-a-day brush and didn’t fret about them. Life went on.

But at my last checkup, the dentist said: “I want you to see the hygenist.”

Bah, I thought. Just an excuse to charge me extra for a scrub and a cleanup. But I went anyway.

And the hygenist took one look inside my mouth and said: “You’ve got quite a serious problem in there haven’t you?”

Have I?

“Yes. It’s very noticeable as soon as I look inside your mouth. You’ve got a serious case of recession. Have you noticed any sensitivity when you eat?”

Not really.

“Well you’re very lucky. I would expect someone with recession this serious to be having a lot of trouble with hot or cold food. Your gums, you see should be up here.” She gestured with a metal pointy thing while I looked in a mirror.

“But they’re not, they’re down here. They’ve shrunk. And they will never grow back. We need to do what we can to prevent them receding any further.”

Oh. Blimey. So, now what?

It turns out I have to change the habit of a lifetime. Literally. I have to re-learn how to brush my teeth, because for the last three decades I’ve been brushing the gums away with my enthusiasm to keep the teeth clean. The hygenist pulled out a disposable, pre-toothpasted toothbrush and started to show me the right way to brush.

“Softly,” she said. “Softly, and gently. I think over the years you’ve been hacking away at them like a wild thing, haven’t you? They deserve a bit more in the way of tender loving care.”

She brushed, softly and gently. The pre-toothpaste was better and nicer than the cheap stuff I usually buy. But I remain quite alarmed. Stuff going wrong with my teeth just isn’t something I’m used to. It happens to other people. I’ve always been so careful with my teeth.

But that’s the point, the hygenist admonished me. You have always been careful with your teeth and that’s great. You have smashing teeth. Nothing wrong with that. And you’ve ignored your gums. You’ve completely ignored your gums.

Filed under: life
(15th August 2009)