A Rich People Problem, Part I

In law school, I was taught that to change someone’s behavior, you need to appeal to a very basic, very powerful emotion. And there is no more basic, no more powerful emotion, than fear. If you can scare someone enough, you can get them to willingly submit to all sorts of stuff.

Consider dentistry.

I have all my wisdom teeth. Thanks to a technically skilled orthodontist who tended to me when I was a teenager, my jaw and teeth got aligned very well before my wisdom teeth erupted, and they came in straight and painlessly. I should have them until I die, unless either bodily insult or decay takes those teeth from me. Decay, like the kind that required a filling earlier tonight, is likely — my small mouth and hair-trigger gag reflex all conspire to make flossing back there well nigh impossible.

Add to that the ego-diminishing problem that I have what feels like a zero tolerance policy for pain in my teeth and an epinephrine allergy. My last dental work needed four cheek injections of anesthetic, which left my mouth, jaw, and shoulder enduringly sore. I needed 600 mg of ibuprofen, four times a day, just to be able to open my mouth wide enough to eat a sandwich for lunch, for about three weeks afterwards. The whole time thinking of my mother’s stories of how she could endure no-anesthetic drilling when she manifested one of her astonishingly rare cavities.

The dentist told me that the dental chair was not the place to be a hero, but when “Oh, I just close my eyes and think of a pleasant vacation” is the myth to which your own behavior is mentally compared, it’s hard not to take a hit to my pride as well as my body. So as for tonight, the work was on the other side of my mouth and it’s now six and a half hours later and the entire left side of my face is still numb and I’m still wondering if somewhere along the way I’ve bitten my tongue and I’ve probably been pretty unpleasant company to my wife through no fault of hers.

Sure, I know there’s people with no dental insurance at all. There’s people who even if they can afford the care, nevertheless don’t understand the importance of taking care of your mouth, or who don’t think it’s worth the unpleasantness which I’m going through right now. So maybe you’re not terribly sympathetic that I had a bad experience, as I always do have a bad experience despite the very best efforts — and they are truly commendable efforts — of an entire office of professionals to make the process as not-unpleasant as they possibly can. My present discomfort, and the lingering after-effects of it, are rich people problems.

But, on a more psychological level, why do it? The answer is fear. If this is my reaction to getting a filling, it’s pretty clear to me that if I let a tooth go to the point that I need a root canal, I’ll need to request general anesthetic. And I might not get it. The gagging associated with my daily dental hygiene routine notwithstanding, I’m never going to let it get that far.

That’s fear talking. I don’t fear an ordinary filling so much as I dread it. But I fear the prospect of a root canal. So I will willingly submit to the icy-cold, needle-like intensity of pain that is involved in what I go through on a night like this, skipping dinner and depressing my mood, so as to avoid having to confront the fear of something even worse. All the money, all the pain, all the dread, and gagging myself to good hygiene every morning — it must all be better than a root canal.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. FWIW. I’m a massive fraidy cat about dental work but somehow the wife worked on me enough that i started to go. I too have hair trigger gag reflex which is an incredible pain in the ass. I can’t get a dental x ray without gas much to the dismay of that one dental hygienist who wouldn’t listen to me. Well the dentist said i need a crown and also needed a root canal before i he could finish the crown. I’m not really sure why but i agreed. The root canal………………………………….easy peasy. Nothing at all. It took a while because the tooth was in an odd position but essentially painless. But boy was i scared.

  2. I have all my wisdom teeth.

    Who else heard the tune as they read that?

    my small mouth

    You sure are making it hard to get in all the lawyer jokes, aren’t you?

    Here’s hoping you feel better much sooner than you expect to.

  3. On the gag reflex; a problem I also suffer.

    I have a growing suspicion that this may be related, in some insane way, to migraine; part and parcel of the thing that make it so prone to nausea.

    Don’t know, but it’s a common problem for people who suffer migraine; and worse when migraine is present.

  4. I doubt it will make you feel better, but root canal is BY FAR the worst (physical) experience I’ve ever had. It was total misery from start to finish. I would stop at nothing to prevent it from ever happening again.

    • I compare this to greginak’s story of the root canal being much easier than he had feared despite his description of having a dental pain tolerance threshold similar to mine (that is, low enough that you don’t really have to do any sanding before applying paint). . It seems that these are mutually inconsistent.

      I’m going to stick with my prejudice of the root canal being something that I anticipate as on par with the dentist “getting medieval on [my] ass” and using that fear to motivate myself to endure the gag-inducing (and sometimes vomit-inducing) discomforts of dental hygiene.

  5. The pain I felt before my first root canal was some of the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I have a high pain tolerance, moreso than most due to being on the “hypo-” side of the sensitivity spectrum (something I can elaborate on if folks aren’t familiar with it). And the extended pain I felt in my mouth left me curled up in a ball on the ground chewing on a wet wash clothe, the only thing that eased the pain before medication was prescribed.

    Since then, I’ve had several root canals. They are uncomfortable largely because of the extended period with my mouth wide open. Their is the slight needled prick but, after that, not much. I’ve also had a tooth wholly extracted… a needle prick, some slight pressure, and out it popped.

    • …curled up in a ball on the ground chewing on a wet wash cloth…

      Just because I’m conscious that I’m using my own fear to motivate my own behavior doesn’t mean you have to help, Kazzy. 😉

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