I went to the dentist yesterday. I am in the beginning stages of gum disease, and I have seven cavities spread out on both sides of my mouth—top and bottom. The dentist told me he could break up the procedures into two or four parts, but he declined to do four because he thought it would be too much for me. I opted for two procedures so we could finish them sooner, and before the insurance runs out on us. The upside for us is Ronnie signed up for a card where a little bit of money would be taken out of her paycheck to put towards this card that functions as a debit card for medical bills. Thankfully, what we have on the card is just enough to take care of my deep cleanings and fillings.
The procedure took two and a half hours and would begin with a deep cleaning. Before the dentist could start the cleaning the main dentist came in and gave me three shots of anesthesia. I have had my tongue pierced and stretched it out to a 2g, and thought I could handle a needle going into my gums. The pain felt eternal , my body became tense, and my eyes watered. After a few minutes the numbness took over and the dentist had me keep my mouth propped open as she went in with what sounded like a drill and a tube to suck up all the bone dust flying in and out of my mouth. Consciously, I was unbothered and quite peaceful, but from the neck down my body was tense while my hands shook. There was something obviously going on so I closed my eyes and met my fear in the cacophony of the dentist’s vibrating instruments.
As I faced my fear, I recalled the mantra I read and heard in Frank Herbert’s Dune:
I must not fear
Fear is the mind killer
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing
Only I will remain
I know it sounds funny to do that while going through dental work, but the mantra has helped me before and, along with the Jesus Prayer, enables me to face my fears and go through them. Occasionally, the dentist would stop to ask if I was doing alright. I couldn’t speak so I gave her a thumbs up, and after an hour the dentist stopped and propped up my chair. I thought the whole procedure was finished. Nope. What I went through was the deep cleaning to prepare me for the drills, clamps, and fillings.
I think what triggered that fear is how both rooms were set up. I was set on a long chair with little trays and tables on each side of me with drills, vacuums, and scrapers. I had a bib hooked around my neck, and above me was a moving lamp that could move up and down, and it’s brightness strained my eyes wringing out the very last drop of sight I had. My jaw was open constantly and wide to the point I thought the strain would cause a dislocation. Clamps were placed around my teeth while drills went deep into my throat getting the second to last tooth on the bottom part of my jaw. Early on in the procedure, I asked my dentist if she ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and/or the franchise’s movies. She shook her head, and I went on to explain about The Borg, their parasitic existence fed by assimilating different beings, and how they would do it on an operating table. Once the victim was laid down the tiny, whirring machines would remove parts of the body to be replaced by cybernetics, and the entire body was conformed to the image of The Borg. Any trace of individuality dissipated, and the cybernetic being was a only a pale shadow of its former self. Rationally, I understand that it’s not the same, but when I had skin grafting surgery at Community North in early 2009, the operating table bore a suspicious resemblance to The Borg’s operating table. My body remembers that fear and trembled accordingly.
It’s funny how the mind can move past traumatic events, but the body will stay rooted in that fight or flight energy until it can finally wash away and rest. At least that is how it has been for me. Having my teeth drilled and repaired with fillings caused my body to shake increasing the dentist’s difficulty in cleaning and fixing my teeth, but I stayed vigilant. I remained in my breath, I stayed with the fear my body held, I recited the fear mantra from Dune, and I recited the Jesus Prayer while staying with my body. Prayer and meditation are not meant as an escape from fear, but they gave me the tools to face fear and let it dissipate in the passing.
My body holds on to things from the past. When I am touched a certain way my body flinches, my hands tighten, and I swing. At what? There is no planned destination. My body sends signals to my brain, my brain releases a chemical, and the memories of my father’s beating or my great aunt’s and great grandmother’s biting derision cascade before my mind’s eye, and that is all I see. I live out those painful scenarios like a waking dream, but I am conscious of my size, strength, and education. In that moment my life becomes a smoky shadow. I fight back, and when I come too I have increased my brokenness and I have destroyed another relationship.
I know the right thing to do, but I am powerless against my own body as it seizes me and dredges up old memories. This has happened in the last month as I sat down to write my story for the church. All those demons woke up just like my body woke up in the dentist’s chair. I am aware enough of what is happening, but I exist as a spectator when those memories consume me. I feel like St. Paul when he scribbles in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (NRSV)?” Praying is all I can do in those moments seeking rescue from myself and old memories, but I’ve also opted to start attending a twelve step program for anyone with any kind of addiction or hang ups. It was either that or go to a Zen Monastery in Northern California. Ronnie’s idea. She love me and doesn’t want me to go, but she knows I need to heal. Before I knew of the program, I was making plans to go out after we moved. I think this a better option. I’m around three people I know, and two of them have already gone through the program.
Before I started the program, I knew I had taken the first steps towards recovery when I began to live out the challenge a writer friend posited to me. I started living my life as if I had never gone through the trauma of Church and Christianity, and I noticed how much of my hatred and condescension were attached to my wounds. I slip, but there was noticeable progress and I felt my body unclenching just as I unclenched in the dentist chair and sat with my pain as part of my body was repaired. And I can speak with hope, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:25, NRSV)!”