Yesterday was dental appointment day for my sons. I approach my sons’ dental appointments with a terror roughly equal to water board torture. They have a long, sordid history of horrific dental appointments that has nothing to do with cavities or tooth decay of any kind. Despite their natural, boyish tendency to eat too much junk and skip brushing and flossing, neither of my sons have ever had a cavity. (Why, yes. I am currently knocking on wood.) Still…their dental appointments are tantamount to a Wes Craven film. That I have continued to set up and show up with my sons for two dental appointments per year should be a testament to what a devoted mother I am. What I discovered yesterday, however, is that my patting myself on the back may have been premature. Apparently, I not only write, direct, and produce these dental horror films for my sons, I star in them too.
Our son with ADHD has traditionally fidgeted, flopped, and inadvertently smacked dental hygienist after dental hygienist with his flailing hands. At past appointments, I have been told to hold both his hands for fear he will whack the dentist while he’s holding sharp implements in my son’s mouth. This behavior has decreased over time with the addition of ADHD medication and the increasing maturity of my son. My youngest has a completely different issue. He has an insanely sensitive gag reflex, which is partly physical and partly mental. The kid can look at something he finds unappealing and vomit. This has made eating out at buffet restaurants verboten. Before he was six, Luke had vomited on a hygienist twice. We were told he would grow out of it, but continual gagging with both the hygienist and dentist meant he didn’t have his first real dental cleaning until he was 10. And we sedated him with nitrous to get him through that appointment. He is nearly 12 and he has not been able to have a bite-wing x-ray taken. All these repeated, negative experiences have made him a nervous patient and me an anxiety case.
Because of this, we usually get the dental hygienist with the most experience. While she has the most experience, after repeated episodes with our son she no longer has the most patience with him. To that end, she didn’t see him at all last year, a fact I imagine was fine with her. I sat with Luke for a while as she explained what she was going to be doing. She put the weighted blanket on him to help calm his nervous system and got to work. A minute or two into the process, I decided to go check on Joe in the next room. When I returned five minutes later, she wasn’t quite done with the cleaning. I heard her telling him to relax. Then she told me to get some paper towels. As I was reaching for the paper towels, he began throwing up. He puked on himself, the weighted blanket, and his dental bib. My heart sank. We’d gone two years since his last episode and I had hoped those crappy days were behind us. They weren’t. She finished up the appointment, the dentist came in and checked his mouth, and she summarily dismissed us.
As I was at the counter paying $275 for the torture we’d just endured and feeling disheartened and frustrated, the hygienist reappeared and asked if she could speak with me. She led me to another room for a private conversation. My dread grew.
“I talked with the doctor,” she started, “and he and I think it would be in Luke’s best interest if you sit in the waiting room for his future appointments. When you’re not there, we have more authority and he tends to do better.”
This made perfect sense to me. For years I would have been more than happy to sit in the waiting room playing Words With Friends on my iPhone while they dealt with my sons privately. Sadly, they have always asked me to come back with them because of their issues.
“I agree,” I told her, feeling some relief. “I think that’s a good idea. We can definitely do that next time.”
Now, if she’d left the conversation there, I would have been fine. But she continued.
“You know, when you left the room, he relaxed. I was able to get through most of the cleaning without any issue. I got through all his teeth except one. He was doing great until you came back in the room. When you came back in the room, he threw up. We think you are causing him to stress out and throw up. Every time he throws up, it’s a setback for us in trying to break his cycle of negative dental experiences. We’ll be starting all over next time.”
An arrow pierced my heart. My stomach knotted up. I clenched my jaw as I noticed the tears welling up. I turned away from her. I swallowed hard. I knew there was truth in what she was saying, but it hurt. All the times I’d sat with him thinking I was calming him, all the times I held his hands and stroked his hair, and here I was…the stress-neutralizing equivalent of Attila the Hun. I felt judged. I felt insulted. But most of all, I felt sad. Not only had I not been helping all these years, I’d been making things worse. Now I wanted to vomit.
I choked my way through the rest of the conversation, acknowledged that I would not be present going forward, and stumbled back to the check out counter. The poor receptionist there started talking to me about sealant costs for my oldest son’s teeth.
“I’m 90% certain that we won’t be doing sealants on my son’s teeth,” I told her aggressively. “He’s had no cavities and we’re not spending $650 on the off-chance that he starts getting them now.”
“Well…insurance should cover some of the cost,” she offered, still trying to sell me when I was struggling to hold back tears and was dying to escape. “I’ll call insurance and see what they might cover.”
“Go ahead if you want to, but I don’t think we’ll be changing our minds,” I spat back. I knew I was taking out my anger, hurt, and frustration on her, but it felt good and I needed to release some of my negative energy before I exploded. I took my paperwork, scheduled the next miserable appointment, and skulked out.
The kids were waiting for me outside. Luke told me he was sorry for barfing on the hygienist. I told him he didn’t need to apologize. It was my fault. I barely made it into the car before the tears began flowing. I quietly cried for the 15-minute drive home, reflecting on what I’ve put my son through while thinking I was being helpful. I’d increased his anxiety to the point where my presence had made him sick. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted less as a parent than to make my son afraid and uncomfortable. Growing up, I often felt anxious with others, especially people in authority, because I knew what was expected of me and I knew I was supposed to be a good girl. Here I had thought I was breaking the cycle of fear, yet all the while I was repeating it. I suddenly understood the penitentes of New Mexico who self-flagellate.
I’ve been working all day today to forgive myself. I understand that my anxiety level in the dental appointments was precipitated by real events that I have witnessed over the years, events that I had not caused. Originally, Luke’s vomiting on the hygienist was gag-reflex induced. But every time that happened, every time I ended up with my son’s lunch in my hands after trying to save the hygienist from that same fate, my apprehension grew. It accumulated like flood water at the back of a dam. Eventually, it was bound to spill over onto my son, and it did. I apologized to Luke last night for making him feel stressed out when he was only ever being himself. I told him that I understood how hard he has been working to hold it together so he would not embarrass or disappoint me and how wrong it was of me to expect him to live with my anxiety. I reassured him that things would be better going forward.
If there’s an upside to all of this, during their next appointment while their father is with them at the dentist, I will be sitting on the couch at home drinking a glass of wine and watching Netflix. If the hygienist is correct, we should all be better off for it. If she’s not correct, at least I’ll be sitting on our couch drinking a glass of wine and watching Netflix when the blame comes down.