Discovering My PTSD in the Dentist's Chair

Discovering My PTSD in the Dentist's Chair

Halfway through my wisdom tooth extraction, the drugs wore off.

The whole thing had started normally enough. Sitting on the chair, I breathed into a mask filled with gas. I looked away from the bright lights pointed into my mouth, and counted backward as the world faded to black. I assume they set to work as they usually do, cranking my mouth open and preparing to yank out my partially impacted teeth.

When the anesthesia began to fade, I couldn't focus my eyes or understand the words being said around me. The world was a sea of blurred colors and the sounds of my dentist and hygienist talking together. But more than that, the world was pain. Worse pain than I had ever imagined. Pain so bad all I could do was cry, incapacitated and unable to speak or raise my head.

As I whimpered and drooled, the dentist and hygienist laughed. Somebody increased my medication, and the world darkened again. For the rest of the surgery, I drifted in and out of a vague awareness of bursts of light or color, the drug-muffled sounds of voices, and pain. After it was over I became fully conscious in a dark recovery room. Shaking, sweating, and sick, I sobbed for what felt like forever, overwhelmed by tangible, primal fear. It wasn’t the pain that had frightened me, that sent first cold chills and then waves of heat across my skin. It was the laughter.

Although in the moment I couldn't put my finger on why the laughter was so terrible to me, crying and dry-heaving in the recovery room, it hit me. Seven years earlier I had been raped at a party. I had been intoxicated to a point where I couldn't control my body or speech. I had my mouth forced open and parts of another person's body thrust inside. And in the darkness, just beyond what I could see or reach, there had been unseen people, laughing.

This was my first experience with PTSD flashbacks.

I lay in the recovery room for hours after my wisdom teeth were out and the stitches were in, inconsolable. My then-boyfriend/now-husband, there to drive me home, was in shock. I heard him ask the dentist what happened, why I was like this. "We had a little trouble with her anesthesia," he said casually, "Some people react badly to it."

They sent my extracted teeth home with me, and I set them in a box on the highest shelf I could find. Looking at them gave me the shivers, even if it didn't make my jaw ache.

I had never been afraid of dentists before. Even as a kid I understood it was something uncomfortable I had to do, but nothing worse. For years in elementary school I wore a retainer and was never afraid of my orthodontist, even when he made me sit for interminable minutes to make molds of my teeth with foul tasting plaster. I'd been proud to be an adult who didn't squirm at the idea of my twice annual visits. I'd only ever had two cavities.

But after my wisdom tooth extraction, it was years before I could bring myself to return to any dentist. Not because I couldn't forgive an entire profession for a bad surgery, but because now the dentist chair linked itself in my mind with my sexual assault. Now, thinking of the dentist brings up that darkness, that pain and helplessness. More than anything, I fear that laughter in the dark. The sound of someone tormenting me at my most vulnerable, and finding humor in it.

In the years since that episode, I have learned a lot about PTSD. I've learned that it's much more than flashbacks, that there are many types of flashback, that there are behaviors in addition to episodes, that it's chronic and not only acute. I've learned to cope with triggers like the dentist chair, I have an arsenal of techniques I can use to ground myself in the present.

But the fear doesn't go away.

In the years since that episode, I've found that laughter, particularly male laughter, at any time I'm in pain or incapacitated can send me into a panic. It's not rational. It's merely a fact.

When I go to the dentist now, an experience that follows weeks of dread and terror and a lot of medication, I face into the light.


Read more about understanding PTSD triggers here: Saying No to a High School Reunion, or, What To Do when your Friends are Friends with your Rapist

Read my most recent post here: Today's Gratitude Journal: Thank You, Feminist Porn

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