My, but I have struggled with this theme. Then again, I’ve been struggling with this idea for a while. So often one is told to “be here now,” but there was a time when I needed help leaving “here” for someplace better, calmer, in my mind.
I was afraid, terrified, of the dentist. With children, dentists often try to hide what’s really happening in children’s mouths with the hope of getting the job done before the kid even knows what’s happening, and as a kid I knew that. As a result I was painfully anxious at the dentist’s, constantly asking questions that were taken for distractions and delays. In fact, I just liked to know exactly what I was getting myself into before surrendering to the picks, the needles, the dental dams they called “raincoats”. Pediatric dentists aren’t really into that.
One time I gripped the arms of the chair so hard my hands began to sweat, and gradually they slid down until I almost lost my grip altogether. I jerked my hands back, the rest of my body stiff as a board, trying to catch my grip. What my dentist said was partly true: I did hit him. He could have hurt me with whatever instrument of torture he held in my mouth. He yelled at me. He lost it. I really must have been a trial.
On another day, after I spent some twenty minutes writhing in the chair, crying, calling to my father as he sat in the room, helpless, twisting his magazine into a tight roll, my dentist asked my father to leave. Naturally this made things worse for me – who would protect me from the anguish of getting a cavity filled? My dad tapped my knee with the magazine and said, “Be good, kiddo,” before I let out another wail.
A few weeks later it was decided I needed to go to therapy for my dentist anxiety. I had gone to play therapy when I was very little, while my parents were going through marriage counseling. I didn’t like it. They would tell my mother I drew a witch and said it was her. They would tell me that I couldn’t see white crayon on white paper. What was the point?
Still I went to see Dr. Noonan, who I know I would recognize if I saw her. I cannot for the life of me describe anything about her. For the most part we played Battleship and chess, trying to unearth some reason for me to react to the dentist as I do while part of my mind was occupied with strategy. It didn’t help.
Later she recommended I listen to music – the Beatles, of course – but when I tried to bring my discman into the dentist’s office they were not pleased.
Back in Dr. Noonan’s office the following week, she asked me if there was anywhere I liked to go for fun. At nine years old, there was nowhere I went alone. “Is there anywhere you’d like to go?”
“Ireland,” I said, without hesitation. I had never left the country. I was obsessed with my Irish heritage. To me it had everything I thought I could want: horses, rolling hills, Sinead O’Connor, an ancient language that you could still hear sometimes, age. Dr. Noonan asked me to lie down on the couch.
She told me to close my eyes, and I did. I did everything she said. I concentrated on my breathing, which made me feel short of breath. I felt the weight of my arms and my legs grow heavier, but as she spoke I could almost feel myself lifting off the couch. She told me to imagine Ireland, what I saw, what I smelled. She told me to put myself in that place.
And at first what I saw was a vast green hill. I saw myself lying with the grass growing up around me, all different shades of bright spring green. I saw another hill rising up beyond. And as I let myself go I could see nothing, but I knew what was there, as I felt the grass tickle my neck. I was present in this vision, the sun was warm on my face, and I could feel every freckle get darker on my nose. The grass felt cool, it smelled cool, and sweet. I heard birds and I saw things fly over my closed eyes as the light changed – perhaps they were birds, or butterflies. A light breeze blew my bangs to one side, then the other. My arms were outstretched in Ireland, as if to welcome it all in, to fill myself with this image, this feeling, this crisp taste in my mouth.
“Now open your eyes, Jessica,” she said, and I awoke to find the dingy ceiling tiles. I rolled over a bit and saw the grey carpet, my sunken battleships, some dismantled Cooties, and Dr. Noonan.
She suggested I try this at the dentist.
When I was old enough to make my own dental appointments I took a long time to get back in the chair, and even then it was because I was looking for a dentist who sedated their patients. With the laughing gas I can deal with the whole experience much better.
Around that time I learned that my childhood dentist had suggested that my father abused me. He had seen the rolled-up magazine and the warning to be good and thought that I was beaten at home. That was why I was in therapy. Self-hypnosis or whatever you might call my mini-vacations to that Kerry hillside were a last resort because Dr. Noonan was supposed to unearth some confession of abuse. But there was no abuse to confess.
It boggles the mind that a person whose job it is to stick sharp metal objects and vacuums and mirrors into people’s mouths can’t imagine that they are capable of frightening a small child who is holding onto the last shred of control she has. Doubtless I was the worst patient he had ever seen, but I couldn’t have been the only bad one, could I?
At least there’s that.