I’ve never had a baby, or a kidney stone, or even a broken leg; the brain-spearing throb of a bad tooth is about the closest thing to agony I’ve ever known. I’m not especially fond of agony, so all my adult life I’ve trotted off to the dentist every six months, in the naïve belief that check-ups would save me from ever again experiencing the dental nightmares I endured as a kid. But no. The tooth demon paid a call over the last long holiday weekend, which I spent gobbling Advil and watching with horror as the right side of my face puffed up like a bullfrog’s throat. Bright and early on the first day office hours resumed, I was reclining in the dental chair, contemplating my complicated relationship with authority and pain.
My parents had no patience for crybabies. In my family, pain was an opportunity to put on a brave face. For my brothers and me, the greatest test of our stoicism came from the dentist. Dr. X (I think anonymity is called for—his progeny are probably lurking out there somewhere) was a tall, smarmy guy who always smelled like he’d bathed in the same disinfectant they used to swab his clinic’s floor. He was the only dentist in our little town, which I suppose explains why we were taken to him in spite of his less-than-advanced ideas about pediatric dentistry.
Dr. X didn’t believe in painkillers for children. “Kids don’t feel pain like adults do,” he assured my mother. So I went under the drill with no anesthetic on at least three occasions that I can recall. And I recall them very, very well—my fingers digging into the green vinyl chair, every muscle in my body rigid, my ear focused on the whine of the drill while the pain shot up through my sinuses and out my eyes.
But I never made a sound. No crybaby here. The dental assistant sang my praises to my mother—“Oh, she’s so good. Usually we have to hold ‘em down.” Of course, this gave the lie to Dr. X’s claim, but we all overlooked that, proud as we were of my toughness.
It was more than a decade later, when I saw the movie Marathon Man, with its sadistic Nazi dentist Szell, that I realized reasonable people might regard Dr. X’s treatment as a form of torture. That was when I began to wonder about this whole stoicism thing. Maybe quiet courage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Why didn’t I scream? What the hell was wrong with me? They damn well should have been forced to hold me down. They should have had to put me in a strait jacket. It dawned on me that I had it all wrong. I wasn’t tough as I lay there, suffering in silence. I was being a wimp. A compliant wimp.
I realized then that I secretly admired the crybabies. They have guts. They’re not afraid of looking weak. In the end they wind up suffering about as much as the rest of us—whining hardly ever gets you off the hook—but at least they don’t make it easy for the Dr. X’s of the world. And they probably get a lot more consolation ice cream.
So I’ve tried over the years to cultivate my own inner crybaby, but without much luck. I do pretty well when it comes to moaning to friends and loved ones. I can hold my own in the “That’s awful, but guess what happened to me?” department. A while back I literally burst into tears when I burned my hand in the kitchen—pretty advanced whining for a grown woman. No ice cream so far, but I did get treated to prescription-strength Motrin during my recent dental crisis, which was just as gratifying.
But somehow, when I’m confronted with a white coat, all my resolve to claim sympathy goes away. Inevitably, I wind up smiling and “it’s OK”-ing as the nurse jabs me for the umpteenth time, probing for a vein; or when the doctor casually strolls into the freezing-cold examining room, where I’ve been undressed and waiting for more than an hour. I just cannot complain. There is a Pavlovian paralysis of my vocal chords, a jamming of signals from brain to tongue. That aura of medical authority suppresses all instinct for fight or flight, and all I can do is hunker down and hope for the best.
One of the nice things about being an adult is that you get to decide who comes near you with implements of torture. (At least, most of us do.) I’m happy to say my current dentist is nothing like Dr. X, or the fiendish Dr. Szell. He’s a great guy, and way generous with the Novocaine. I treasure him. But I’m not getting any younger, and I know that, best-case scenario, my future is likely to contain plenty more food for thought on the intersection of power and pain: mammograms, colonoscopies, icy-fingered gynecologists. It’s not going to be pretty. But you won’t hear me cry about it.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Maria Browning. All rights reserved.