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My Precarious Love Affair With the Dentist

Kelsey Tyler

I’m one of those sick people who loves going to the dentist.

Yes, such people exist, albeit in small numbers. It turns out that 36 percent of the population is afflicted by dental anxiety, and another 12 percent suffers from extreme dental fear, so I’m part of a small pool of oddballs who genuinely look forward to letting near-strangers poke and prod inside their mouths.

But it’s not that weird, really, if I can psychoanalyze myself for a minute: Since childhood, the dentist has been a place where I know I’ll be lavished with praise for my good work.

I skated through my earliest dentist appointments untraumatized. While other kids left with cavities and stern warnings about the dangers of fruit snacks, I got a pat on the head and an “atta girl!” for my twice-a-day brushing routine and my preference for plain tap water.

When I had braces — not once but twice between the ages of 10 and 15 — I mastered the art of brushing between the wires. As an adult, hygienists are wowed by This One Weird Trick I use to floss beneath the permanent metal retainer that keeps my lower teeth aligned (and no, I don’t use one of those needle threaders; that would be cheating). It’s my greatest party trick.

I’m smug as hell about having zero cavities. It’s insufferable. 

For nearly 30 years, I’ve been batting a thousand with the dentist. I’ve looked forward to my appointments, thinking of each one as a sort of hour-long mindfulness exercise wherein I zone out in front of HLN headlines scrolling on a mini TV while mint toothpaste is applied with care to each of my individual molars, canines and incisors.

I’ve always had the strongest connection with the hygienists; I can spot the look of sheer joy in their eyes when I tell them, sincerely, that I floss every single day. (And yeah, I read that malarkey about how the benefits of flossing are debatable, but you’ll have to pry the Glide from my cold, dead hands.) When the dentist pops in for his obligatory song and dance — moving my jaw from side to side, telling me to stick my tongue out — our interaction is as brief as it is validating. “That’s a beautiful set of teeth,” he says. (I know.) “And so rare to see a mouth with no fillings!” (It’s my single greatest accomplishment, thank you for noticing.)

I’m smug as hell about having zero cavities. It’s insufferable. But being good at oral hygiene has become a weirdly integral part of my identity. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and maintaining my pearly whites satisfies a deep-seated desire to be the best at something. What I lack in looks, charisma and athletic ability, I make up for in preventing plaque buildup and remembering to use Crest Whitestrips every now and then.

There are so many other things in my life that I can’t control, particularly related to my health, like chronic sinus infections and anxiety and seasonal allergies that somehow persist through all seasons. I relish the opportunity to control this one small thing. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to unravel my obsession with dental validation, and I’m finding that it’s a precarious love affair.

I grind my teeth at night, a Type-A habit if ever there was one. A few years ago, at my dentist’s behest, I finally gave in and spent hundreds of HSA dollars on a clunky, expensive plastic night guard. Anything to keep myself from whittling my chompers to a pulp.

Not long after I got the night guard, I learned that my gums are beginning to recede ever so slightly. It’s a common problem, and not cause for panic. But it’s also the type of issue that could eventually require a rather unsavory procedure (think gum tissue grafts or “open flap scaling”) if it gets out of hand.

In doing as much as possible to attain and maintain a pristine smile, I’d been doing too much. My squeaky-clean gums are beginning to creep up from years of aggressive scrubbing.

Gum recession is also exacerbated by excessive brushing. Who knew such a thing existed? My dentist said to take it easy on the brushing, which was painful to hear — I’m the best at brushing! I brush all the time! I’m thorough and methodical! But apparently, in doing as much as possible to attain and maintain a pristine smile, I’d been doing too much. My squeaky-clean gums are beginning to creep up from years of aggressive scrubbing.

Instead of simply accepting this information and making a mental note to go lighter on my gums, I started scheming with unhinged determination. No problem. I can fix this, I decided. I’d get one of those toothbrushes with super soft bristles intended for babies. And I’d modify my technique to make sure I was only brushing lightly. I’d be the goddamn best at brushing lightly. But it was already too late.

Even though I’ve spent the last few years brushing with the equivalent of an infant toothbrush and gently maneuvering around the tops of my teeth, it’s not enough to undo the recession. My gingiva is officially on the watch list. Last month, I switched to an electric toothbrush that makes it nearly impossible to beat the crap out of my gums.

Letting go of the belief I held so tight — that taking care of my teeth is one thing I can control and truly excel at — has been difficult. I’ve even cycled through some of the stages of grief (denial, mostly) as I’ve tried to skirt responsibility for my less-than-perfect gums.

“You know,” I said to the hygienist last month. “My childhood dentist once told me I inherited my dad’s gumline. His is receding too, so I think this whole issue is just a genetic thing.”

The hygienist cocked an eyebrow and looked at me, silently. Her face said everything: “Believe what you want, lady. Your gums are receding, and it doesn’t matter whose fault it is.”

Just in time for my 30th birthday, this whole ordeal reminded me that for all the effort I’ve put into a so-called perfect smile — careful brushing, daily flossing, whitening, two rounds of braces funded by my parents — perfection is illusory. I’d be doing myself a favor if I stopped chasing it.

I’ve always known this, in my heart of hearts. But a small, stubborn part of me kept believing that I could beat the odds and become perfect in just one way, by treating my teeth like a prizewinning show dog and collecting a medal every time I went to the dentist.

Despite my grinding and imperfect gum line, I’m not about to throw away my laudable habits and adopt some nihilistic approach to oral hygiene. On the contrary, I’ve already started evangelizing (mostly to my husband) about the fresh feeling I get from my new electric toothbrush. It’s like getting a professional cleaning twice a day. It’s heavenly. But I know it’s only a feeling, not a measure of my worth or evidence of my unique talent for teeth maintenance. It’s certainly nothing to be smug about.

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