The Dentist

I have never had a panic attack before. I’ve watched people have them (both before and after I knew what they were) and Ted Lasso has done a good job of portraying them, but I’ve never myself had that specific experience. My anxiety, when it arises, is more of a slow burn.

I also don’t like needles.

So when a needle full of novocaine slid slowly, deep, up into my jaw, I was prepared to hate it. I did. I was prepared to endure it. I did. I was not prepared to have a panic attack as it set in.

First, my heart rate spiked. I could feel it in my throat and hammering against my ribs. I tried to slow my breathing but it shook and rattled on the way in and out of my lungs. My hands shook, went icy cold and started to tingle. My palms dampened with sudden sweat and nausea hit the pit of my stomach.

I am so fucking proud of myself.

During the last few months of least year, I found myself in a situation that meant frequent but low level stress responses. I spent time learning exactly what adrenaline and cortisol feel like when they hit your system. I learned how to calm myself down and how to ask my body what it needed from me to heal. It wasn’t a fun experience, but it was valuable, because in this moment, when I wasn’t expecting this response at all, I was masterful in my handling of it.

I realized what was going on. I communicated with the staff. I breathed… in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. In, hold, out, hold. Then for six. Finally, all the way up to a count of ten in each phase.

One of the scariest parts of a panic attack is not knowing what’s going on. The first time I watched someone have a panic attack, neither of us knew what it was or what it meant. We wondered whether it would be worth going to the hospital. We sat, confused and afraid, in the car, hoping it would go away. But without the tools to name and dissipate it, The effects lasted for hours, the fear for years.

When, within the space of an hour, I experienced the symptoms of panic attack, calmed myself down, communicated my needs, and returned to baseline, I was SO proud of myself.

And proud of my body.

At one point, about halfway through (and yes, the dentist and his technician were still going about their work) that nausea I felt in my stomach asked for my attention. In some of my meditations, I have visualized light of several colors rolling off of me, as if I was shedding love, calm, or strength, depending on the color. I put my hand flat, palm down, right over the soft spot under my sternum, applied gentle, sustained pressure, and saw behind my closed eyelids, the blue, cool light of calm coming from my open hand and soaking into my upset tummy. Next, my throat. I slipped my other hand under the little paper chest apron they give you and rested, cool, on my chest, just below my throat. As I cooled off and calmed down, my hands adjusted, finding the spots that needed attention and filling them with calm.

I wonder how things might have been different if I’d known this years ago. Perhaps I could have been more present for myself and my friends. Perhaps I could have found my voice sooner.

Rumination is one of my stressors so I’ll avoid it here. I am only grateful that whatever I’ve been doing, the reading, the meditation, the visualization, and constantly learning from others’ experiences, helped that day.

When I went back to have the other side done, I was ready. It turns out there’s epinephrine in the novocaine. It was likely responsible for my symptoms and now that I knew what to expect, I wasn’t afraid. I got a little shaky and my heart rate went up, but I didn’t need the focus that, the first time, was critical.

I almost cried with joy. Hand on heart, noticing my body, asking it what I needed to do and actually receiving a response, I felt this flood of gratitude. Thank you for telling me we’re in danger. Thank you for telling me how to help you. I thought. You’re doing such a good job, body, and I love you. 

I cry fairly often. It’s normal for me to express love in a flood of tears. I am trying to learn to let them come in the moment and embrace the awkwardness of those around me. However. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to explain to the dentist that my tears weren’t of pain. Particularly since his hands, the assistant’s hands, a bite spacer, and several tools were all jammed in to my incredibly tiny mouth. I had to change my train of thought and put my tears off until later. They still haven’t come. But they will.

There’s no particular point or ending here. This kind of work, learning the theory behind emotional health, practicing it in moments when you’re already calm, and drawing on it in moments of very-not-calm, is ongoing. There are dozens of approaches, each suited for different minds and hearts. For the lucky ones, each approach offers new insight, something useful we can weave into the fabric of our selves. There are no finish lines, but there can be pivot points. Moments in time where the gradual work comes together and, AHA! Something new crystalizes.

For me, this trip to the dentist was one of those moments. I didn’t know what I could do until I did it. Now I know it’s there if I need it, and that’s a powerful tool.