Hijacked by (the memory of) the Dentist

“Amy, I talked with the kids, and they are fine switching dentists,” says my spouse Paul.

Me:  “No.  I don’t want to.”

“Can you just explain why?  I’m not asking you to switch – I know you won’t switch – But the kids are happy switching.”

Sullen silence on my end of the phone.  I know I’m being ridiculous, but I just can’t get ahold of myself.  I know I”m not being reasonable, but I DO NOT WANT THEM TO CHANGE DENTISTS.  

“Did you have a bad experience with a dentist?  Can you just talk to me?”  he asks.

“No.  I just do not want them to switch.  I can’t explain it.  I just don’t,” I say, stubbornly, resistant, irrational, end of conversation.

“Okay, look.  I don’t have to decide about our benefits for two days.  You’re at work; I”m at work.  Let’s give it a day or so and talk about it again.”

“Fine.  But I’m not changing my mind.”

Have you had these sorts of conversations, where you KNOW you aren’t making any logical sense, but it makes perfect sense to you at a deep core level, deeper than rational reasoning, and you can’t explain it?  Yeah – It happens to all of us.  And it’s because while we can’t always access the narrative memories held by our hippocampus, our amygdala is like the elephant who never forgets.  We may not remember the details or story, but we sure do remember the emotions.  And the past sneaks up on us, and it feels, and is, so daggone REAL, and our amygdala doesn’t care that our prefrontal cortex can’t explain it, even to ourselves.  Because in our deepest core, we KNOW.

Yes, I knew in that moment I was being crazy.  I recognized the signs, but that didn’t make me want to talk about changing dentists.   I dug in my heels, and resisted and refused with alarming intensity:  Sure signs my amygdala was in control.   Even I knew my reasons were flimsy:  The kids and I have been with the same amazing dentist for 13 years.  But we can’t get insurance that he takes, so each visit costs us out of pocket around $200/person for a basic cleaning.  Times 3, twice a year.  It adds up.  My husband switched several years ago, and now only pays a $5 copay.  It’s not like his dentist is using wrenches and saws; I”m sure he is competent.   But how can I put this?  I DO NOT WANT TO CHANGE DENTISTS.  Irrational, maybe. Okay, definitely.  But very, very real.

The next day, I realize – O!  I DID have some bad experiences with a dentist!  I had completely forgotten, but now that I remembered, my inarticulate stubborn “I do not even want to TALK about this!”  makes some sense.  Our current dentist, Dr. Scott, is kind.  He is gentle.  The day he told me I needed a filling and I went from being a put-together professional woman to a toddler sobbing in his chair, he understood.  He did not think less of me.

However, in that non-conversation I had with my husband, who had tons of good, rational reasons for us to switch dentists and I had nothing but stubborn, sullen, silence?  Well, even if my hippocampus couldn’t access the facts of  the memory, my amygdala sure did.  And the next day, I remembered the Howard brothers.  (Not sure if that was their surname or not, but it will work.)  When I was 13, they teased me mercilessly:  The blamed my painful TMJ that kept me from opening my mouth wide enough to bite a sandwich on my overachieving A-student drivenness.  The message I heard was that it was all my fault, and I felt shamed and belittled.  And still in pain. Every single visit, twice a year.

When I was 14, I was in the dentist chair in a room by myself waiting for them to pull two teeth (I needed braces.)  One of them came in, demanded, “Are you crying?”  And I snuffled, “No,” in a timid voice, and he yelled, “Yes you are.  I can see you.  Why are you lying to me?  There is no reason to cry!”  Of course, that made me cry harder.  Why I did not ask for my mom to come be with me I don’t know.   But I was terrified – I’d never had a filling, let alone teeth pulled.  I suffered from SFS (see my post on “sensitive-flower syndrome.)  Overachiever, maybe, but people pleaser?  Especially to those in authority?  Scared – no, petrified – of getting in trouble?  Definitely.  

My stomach-aches at going to the dentist lasted for years.  Until, really, I found Dr. Scott, who treated me and the kids professionally and kindly and understood my fear and low pain threshold.  

So, my husband and I compromised, once I was able to get my prefrontal cortex on board and explain it all to him – We’re sticking with Dr. Scott for now, but not going every 6 months.  Kids and I have great teeth; going every 9 – 12 months will suffice.  And once again, I’m reminded and awed by the power of our brains to protect us when we perceive threat, even when it makes no logical sense.  

Next time it happens to you or someone you care about?  Be gentle with yourself and them – Deep down, your amygdala is just trying to protect you.  And in that compassion, maybe your hippocampus will offer up some clues as to what is going on.  

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