Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth
“Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth, and spotted the dangers beneath. All the toffees I chewed and the sweet sticky food, Oh I wish I’d looked after me teeth”. Yes, Pam Ayres, I hear you! Last week I made a distress visit to my dentist. I say ‘my’ as if he sits waiting for me to need him, when in fact I hadn’t graced his surgery with my presence since 2013, when toothache once more drove me to seek his help. Which may come as a surprise, because I am in the business of self presentation and often extol the virtues of body and face maintenance and care. So, how come I don’t apply the same principles to my mouth?
My excuse is that the trauma of the mediaeval dentistry to which I was subjected as a child has scarred me for life!
We are the last generation to see dentistry in terms of pain and terror. Our lives have straddled the development of dental practice from rescuing mouths full of rotting black stumps to providing rows of gleaming pure white plastic veneers and implants via a brief detour which equipped our parents with false teeth. I would absolutely love to have straighter, whiter teeth but I have such a terror of the dentist’s chair that I cannot bring myself to contemplate what it might involve in terms ot time and money. So I am hysterical about preserving what I still have but mostly via a DIY approach, avoiding the dentist whilst crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.
In 1948 my mother was twenty-seven years old and had just given birth to me. She had very bad teeth thanks to a poor Norfolk childhood with unsatisfactory nutrition and her postnatal body which was depleted in calcium. In pain from toothache, she sought help from the local dentist. He gave her a choice; either spend several months in his chair having lots of treatment to repair her teeth or have them all out. Without hesitation she opted for the latter. So for the next forty years until her death at age sixty seven years, my mother had the same pair of false teeth. She literally never went to the dentist again. And I would suggest that her Faustian pact with the devil, sorry the dentist, actually worked very well for her. She looked great, her ‘falsies’ were perfectly formed and functioned well as teeth and she never had toothache nor, more importantly, did she ever have to visit the dentist again.
I may have false memory syndrome when it comes to trips to the dentist when I was a child. Can it really be true that my mother used to send me down on my bike for my check-ups and any subsequent treatment all on my own? I certainly remember the smell very vividly. Antiseptic; medical; stomach churning. I remember the waiting room. The surgery was on the ground floor of Medd The Dentist’s house. The waiting room was really cold, dark and sunless. The furniture consisted of a couple of straight-backed chairs and an old mahogany ‘settle’ - all as hard and uncomfortable as possible to heighten the overwhelming sense of awaiting a punishment. Whilst I sat there waiting (alone) I could hear the dull whirring sound of the drill, and then Peggy, the nurse cum receptionist would call my name and I’d feel as though I was walking towards my doom.
The kind of mediaeval dentistry chair that I remember!
Do you remember those old style dental surgeries? The big black chair, white porcelain spittoon to the left and the drill looming over the top with a foot pedal which the dentist depressed to operate the drill bit. This was so slow that you could practically see the rotation. There was no numbing gel, no injection of local anaesthetic and your saliva was soaked up by fat cylinders of cotton wool that were wedged top and bottom between gum and cheek. Then Mr Medd would start the drill and proceed to remove the rotted piece of tooth. If he hit a nerve, too bad. All you could do was lie there and pray for the pain and torture to end as soon as possible. Then Peggy would be instructed to mix the amalgam and he’d tamp and squidge and press it into the hole he’d drilled and then it was ‘rinse please’ and you’d spit the horrible pink antiseptic water out along with all the bits of silver filling that had fallen into your mouth. And if you were unlucky enough to need a tooth extraction then you were given a whiff of gas via a rubber mask (the smell, oh my goodness, the smell!) and awoke to blood and extremely sore gums.
Since then dentistry has undergone a radical transformation. Whilst ignoring my own teeth I made sure my children’s teeth were checked regularly and they seem to have retained no traumatising memories from their visits to the dentist. Both have needed extensive dental work and their teeth are testament to what can now be done to preserve, repair and correct any problems. Anna, the eldest has had a particularly tough time, but whether through stoicism or pragmatism never complains and certainly never avoids whatever has to be done. The youngest, Suzy, has also had her share of things like root canal work, but has recently opted for Invisalign braces to straighten her top and bottom teeth. And as to my grandchildren - all three of the older ones are already under a programme of care which will result in Hollywood perfection. Lucky them!
And what of my recent trip to the dentist? I had toothache for a week and just hoped it would go away. It didn’t. So I rang the surgery and asked for an appointment with the only person I trust, Dr. Nick Bilingham. He specialises in nervous patients (!) and is unbelievably kind and understanding. Every time I go to see him I am a quivering wreck and afterwards I always feel such a fool. As he was away for a week I had time to prepare myself, so I opted for a ‘Mediation and Relaxation for Dental Phobics’ tape on YouTube. I listened to this two or three times every day so that I could dial down the fear and dread. And I’m happy to say that it really helped. When I walked into his room (“You are feeling calm, in control, proud of yourself and looking forward to having your treatment….”) I was able to explain the problem without getting too upset and he fixed my broken tooth in around fifteen minutes. Quick, easy and pain free thanks to the numbing gel and the injection (and his gentle kindness).
Unlike Pam Ayres in her poem, I have actually done my utmost to look after my teeth. My dental phobia has made me very conscious of preserving what I have. Thank goodness for electric toothbrushes and various other dental aids available in the chemist. I was born into a world in which dentistry was a rudimentary process designed to mitigate very poor dental health and hygiene. Offering people false teeth was once seen as a blessing, whilst now it’s seen as a shocking dereliction. How I wish I had swerved all those early miseries in Mr Medd’s black chair! I really would love to have my teeth straightened and whitened but my mind cannot separate the modern cosmetic dentistry of choice from the old barbaric dentistry of necessity. No amount of listening to soothing homilies and waves washing on the shore can convince me that dentistry is no longer about rescuing blackened stumps but about creating perfect, white, shining smiles.
Note to Film Club Members: due to the Bank Holiday on Good Friday, we will postpone our film club discussion of 'The Piano' to Friday 29th April
Tuesday 26th April
Teatime with Tricia - Appeal for Ukrainian Children with Gill Blundell
Chernobyl Children's Lifeline provides direct support to children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The charity has close connections with families and children in the war torn areas in Ukraine and is working with local contacts to provide much needed medical supplies, transport, food and water.
You can donate to the charity here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ccllukrainesupertroupers
Day: Tuesday 26th April
Meeting ID (if needed): 833 2927 0521
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB
Friday 29th April
Film Club - The Piano (1993)
Available on Netflix
Watch the film before and join us for a discussion!
Day: Friday 29th April
Meeting ID (if needed): 861 0928 8705
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB
What Do You Think?