Fear and loathing in dentists - music, kindness and overcoming a phobia
Updated: Aug 17
I hated dentists.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that as a child, I was convinced that only sadists took up this profession. Every other medical profession I dealt with were kind, patient, gentle and I was never scared to go. But not dentists. An evil joy took hold of them as they took to my teeth with the drill...I was terrified of them.
I was so scared that when I finally met a dentist who was kind (around 12), she had to prescribe me Valium to go. Off my head I would toddle down, spaced out and slightly trippy. And yet, my fear could still cut through the prescription drug induced cloud.
And sadly, despite my poor mother’s best efforts, my teeth weren’t great. I don’t think I looked after them properly, mainly due to fear of even thinking about teeth. And I was unlucky.
When I was 15, I got into a fight with a boy called David Moy. Lord knows why but I seem to recall I was mouthing off and deserved the smack in the mouth he duly dealt me. And what was I thinking? He was in the army cadets whereas I was head altar boy. I was always going to get a pasting. Unfortunately for me, David hit me so hard, the nerves in two of my front teeth died and I needed root canal surgery. It was agony. He was apologetic, but it really wasn’t his fault. This is not the beginnings of some deranged historical litigious action…
Over the years, it’s safe to say, I have only really gone to the dentist in moments of crisis, rather than prevention. I went in my 20s when I was worried there was a problem with my wisdom teeth (and also still a student, so I wouldn’t have to pay!). When the dentist told me they were fine, I kissed her! Out of relief, rather than some #dentiststoo incident. She was amused and shocked, but very kind about it. She could see this was real gratitude and enthusiastic respite from the anxiety that got me to go in the first place. Still, probably not my finest moment. Though there are far, far worse…
Not going regularly is VERY stupid, but going genuinely instils fear. Spectacular anxiety, trauma and terror.
I have got better, and when a crisis comes up, I step up and go. And then stick with it…for a while…but then I get the FEAR again…my memory of Steve Martin's dentist from Little Shop Of Horrors kicks in...
But…I have a dentist who forgives my fear, my failure to stick to the contract we agree about coming regularly, and always kindly welcomes me back, and helps me fix whatever is wrong. And he is inextricably linked to music. His name is Phil and let me tell you why.
I first met him in 2000. I was at work, with plans at the end of the day to go and see a reformed The Wonderstuff at the Forum in Kentish Town with a friend. I was excited - the Stuffies were a long term love and always fabulous live.
But as I bit into my Pret A Manger sandwich, I felt a crack in one of my front teeth - one that had literally been punched to death by David Moy back in 1985….it had been dead all those years and finally gave up the ghost.
I didn’t want to look but I spat out my BLT and there indeed was the husk of a dead tooth, snapped in two amongst the remains of the grains and dead pig. This was going to be a fucking disaster.
I ran to the loo and my worst fears were confirmed. I looked in the mirror and Shane MacGowan starred back at me…I looked horrendous and there were the broken, stubby remains of my tooth.
I ran to my boss who was lovely to me, whilst also laughing and confirming the Pogue comparison and let me leave to get it sorted.
But I had no dentist - what do you do??? I ran to the nearest two dentists in Holborn, but both couldn’t see me for days. And I didn’t want to have this horrible gap for a minute longer, never mind 1000s of minutes! And the gig! I couldn’t go to the gig like this!?!
Mobile phones had been out for a while, but I had only finally succumbed in 1999…a late adopter, not wanting to be so contactable and convinced they were a fad…sometimes, I am not the brightest tool in the box…
I decided if I couldn’t get an appointment in town, I would try home. Blackheath had been home for three years and I rang the dentist there. They told me to come in and they would see me asap.
I jumped the train home and went in, now white with worry and feeling nauseous…my tongue would uncontrollably keep prodding its way into this new hole that had appeared…it was impossible to think of anything else than this new horror.
The receptionist was lovely and gave me a form to fill in. It asked how scared you were of dentists on a scale of 1 - 10, 10 being the highest. I went full Spinal Tap and wrote 11 in at the end.
And then that’s when I met Phil. He inspected the damage, the cracked remains of my broken tooth, and read my form. I told him I had a gig to go to and he very kindly, very calmly told me that he was not going to hurt me, that I would be leaving with a false crown so no one would see the damage that was done and that I would be out well in time to get to my gig.
And he was true to his word. I popped my headphones in and listened to music as he went to work as gently as he could, telling me everything that was going to happen, but letting me zone out with whatever was on my headphones that day. These were the days of the cassette Walkman, so my choice was limited to whatever mangled tapes were loose in my briefcase…probably trip-hop, Oasis or Radiohead back then…-
I did indeed make it to the gig. The friend I met would never have known about my terrible tooth and the spectre of Shane MacGowan sunk back into the shadows.
Somewhere along the way, Phil fixed about four teeth that needed repair, but then once again I disappeared…my resolve slipped away, overtaken by my cowardice…
However, intermittent visits whenever I am in crisis have been welcomed with forgiving arms and bundles of patience.
Once again in 2019, I was getting all things maxillary and mandibular sorted and his team repaired some nasty abscess I had developed - the headphones getting me through my ordeal, and then COVID came. The pandemic gave me a legitimate excuse not to go…an excuse I latched onto with quite pathetic gusto, my cowardice masked by social distancing.
But again, just before going to a music festival in May, the remaining tooth, bludgeoned by my fellow pupil at Dartford Grammar, snapped into pieces…this time by some unfortunate “Hipster Fries” in a bar in New York on my first night there. I fucking hate hipsters, so should have known better. The tooth was wobbly at first, but I knew it would go.
Phil was emailed and like my dental guardian Angel, he arranged an appointment for me that gave him enough time to sort it and me time to get back from the States and still get to my music festival, the ever eclectic Great Escape in Brighton later that week.
There is no telling off, no fear of being berated, just a calm, kind dentist telling me what I need to do and telling me the risks of not doing it. He gently but firmly makes me look at what is going on, but without making me run out, or even through the door, leaving a JO’B shaped hole and a vapour trail behind me…
Once again, my tooth is good as new and again I made it to my music festival, to see Personal Trainer, The Heavy Heavy, etc etc.
Phil is once more patiently working around my fear, my nausea and my terrible gag reflex, to save my teeth and even, God forbid, make them look quite nice...or at least not as terrible as they deserve to be.
Special mention to all his team, but especially Tracy, the dental hygienist, who again helps me get through appointments and prevent further damage that my scaredy-cat procrastination causes.
And what do I listen to when I am there? I have no idea why, but Lloyd Cole is a go to. Given the lyrics of Jennifer She Said, you might expect that at the Tattoo parlour, but no, the dental chair and the sound of the drill trigger a need to listen to some Velvets inspired acoustic, wordy pop music.
And The Smiths. Morrissey does like a bit of pain and misery, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he soundtracks my anxiety in the big chair.
So, for now at least, I have a real determination to stay on top of my teeth and the challenges they bring. I want to avoid the lurching from crisis to crisis and music has helped me cope with this stress. But so has finding a kind dentist who has surrounded himself with a kind team and makes me feel ok about going, not small about being so scared and helps me get through it and make progress. And surround myself with music so it’s not so traumatic.
I no longer hate dentists.
Thanks Phil and all at Sparkly Smile. (19 Montpelier Vale, Blackheath, SE3 0TA) - www.sparklysmile.co.uk).