This May Sting a Little

I’ve been putting this off for a while, but the events of the last week opened my eyes. I can no longer pretend that this relationship is okay. All of my friends say I should dump you and find someone who treats me better. They try to fix me up with someone who is a kinder, gentler version of you. But, who are we kidding? You’re all the same. And the statistics prove it.

Over 50% of people just don’t like you, and almost 20% have anxiety about seeing you.

They call it “dental anxiety” and it’s pretty common. To be really clear, I am not one of those people. I’m one of the 10% of people who have “dental phobia.” Dental phobia, or odontophobia, leaves people panic-stricken and terrified.

Like all good phobias, mine is deeply-rooted in my childhood. But, my earliest memories of you were good. Dr. Brenner lived above a Marshall’s department store. I remember walking to the back of the store with my mom and sisters to take an elevator with one of those cool folding gates to get to his office. Dr. Brenner was a warm grandfather-like figure with kind eyes and a playful laugh. He told epic knock-knock jokes.

After a few minutes “riding” up and down in the chair and some bubblegum flavored fluoride rinse, it was time to dig for a prize in the treasure chest for “being so brave.” The most amazing tchotchkes were buried in those colorful little rocks. No drills, no needles, no gag-inducing procedures… just quality time with an old friend before digging for buried treasure and picking out a brand new toothbrush. Those were the days!

My dental history took a tortuous turn after Dr. Brenner died or retired (I don’t remember which,) and my mom introduced to the “new guy.” In my mind’s eye, I can see his tiny little office and those stark white walls without a single picture to distract one from the multi-sensory hell experience he’d deliver. Nope… “you just sit there and think about your love for Twizzlers while staring at the tray of shiny, mini mouth weapons while you wait.” (Makes mouths happy, my ass!)

Dr. Stripe was a beast — half-man, half-monster. He was at least 8 feet tall with a hook where his hand should have been. To clearly establish the social hierarchy between us, he never smiled and made sure he was always looking down at me when making eye contact. He was a bad, bad man, and he hurt me every time I went to see him. Every. Single. Time.

Fast forward a few years to my 20s where managing dental care is considered a responsible part of adulthood. Except, as a starving college student/bartender with no dental benefits, I had the perfect out! I simply couldn’t afford it. As a general rule, I secretly celebrated rising dental costs while brushing my guilt away. I went to the dentist when something hurt. And by “hurt” I mean tears rolling down my contorted face sobbing between screams of agony. Yep… time to make an appointment.

When I finally found my way back to you, the shame combined with my ineffective self-dentistry management resulted in a painful multi-visit cleaning/root canal/crown trifecta. That’ll teach me!

Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Don’t blame me for the sins of my predecessors.” Here’s the thing you should know about the 10% of dental-phobes out there like me: Everything about you and the people who came before you (except Grandpappy Brenner and his treasure chest full of bravery prizes) causes overwhelming, debilitating anxiety. Full-on panic attacks that feel like I’m slowly being sucked into a huge vat of that green Nickelodeon slime…filled with snakes.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Melissa, you have such a story-telling gift. I am half-empathic, half-laughing at how well you share your story.

    I hope the above doesn’t sound cruel, but I can literally ‘feel’ your words. Really quite rare for writing to have that impact on me. thank you and I hope your experience improves.

  2. The mark of a great writer are the memories you dig up for others. Look at what “fun” you’ve unleashed here!

    I was in that 10% as a kid. Preferred the drill sans pain killer for extracting cavities instead of first numbing the area. Hated the needle! My grip marks are still in the arms of that chair, which is now ensconced in a dump somewhere outside of Chicago. Today? Needle away, Doc. I just close my eyes and listen to the classical music he’s playing.

    I wish I could make it – your dentist experience – better as my Mom used to say. Virtual hug? Hey, what’s the adult version of that early dental treasure box?

  3. Melisssa, I am petrified of dentists. My son is 33 years old. The last time I went to the dentist was at least a couple of years before he was born. I remember the pain of the needles, the drilling, and the extractions. This is not rational or responsible behavior for an adult nonetheless I am severely “allergic” to sharp-pointed being jammed into my gums. Needles in the arm or the multiple injections of insulin I give myself a few times per day do not bother me. I feel pain when I walk past a dental office. They don’t make much bigger chickens than me when it comes to the dentist!

  4. Thank you for this Melissa,
    As I read your words my mind starts sending snapshots of earlier days to a dental office as a child. I couldn’t help but smile as I recall the screams i belted out and tears of pain running down my cheeks. I couldn’t understand why I had to endure this torture…even though I was told it was good for my dental health. What I couldn’t figure out was why the needle hurt more than anything. My pain was coming from the product that was suppose to stop pain, that I didn’t feel before? This kid was confused. Back then the sight of this needle was something that caused the fear and just put a bad taste in my mouth ( haha) regarding dentistry. I was mad. The next time I went and from that day on… all dentistry work I had was without the freezing! The dentist was forced to go easy on my teeth and drill a bit, stop, drill a bit, stop… suffice to say, it was the dentist that was told how to treat me…by me.
    Fast forward… being a lifelong dental disaster… I truly do regard the anxiety as something from my youth. I have had many dental professionals visit my mouth, all to which I’ve had a great amount of anxiety. I still do. I suffer a great deal with some form of un-identified necrotizing periodontal disease… the carnage never ends. My extenuating circumstances are not without the eroding decay of stories as insurance was something to contend with. My mouth has cost me a bloody fortune, the anxiety has caused stress, and the lack of insurance? Is it any wonder? Seems a vicious cycle. The oral cavity.. and it’s travesty!
    So thanks for writing about this. It’s something I have not thought of doing, but Have wondered how to deal with often. Dentistry Isn’t a hot topic is it since we feel the awful effects without being in the seat we hate. It never stings a little.. it was always a lot! Lol
    Sorry for the length. I was just here and started writing a response.. I really like your descriptive structure and emotional reflection… it worked as you can tell here.
    Have a great week Melissa

  5. I guess I’m not surprised that this wasn’t what you shared at the beginning of our podcast episode together when I asked you to tell us something most people don’t know about you, Melissa!

    Have you ever thought of bringing a friend you trust to sit with you and hold your hand? I’ll be there with you if you give me a bit of notice. Apparently I’m a very small minority – I have no fear of dentists. Weird, right? I get it, though, especially after seeing Steve Martin’s Oscar-worthy performance in Little Shop of Horrors. Despite my lack of fear in that chair, the lyrics from the song are usually in my head: “You’ll be a dentist! You have a talent for causing pain.”

  6. Melissa, I shared some of this with Susan Rooks in an earlier thread. But I’ll share more of it with you here:

    I share your fear. In short, before the age of 10 or 12, I’d endured the sadism of two butcherous dentists and one gruesomely incompetent oral surgeon. The experiences left me rattled for life. When I moved to go to college in my late-20s, I found a dentist whose display ad in the Yellow Page said, “We cater to cowards.” I called and said, “You don’t know me, but I’m your boy.” I went to him for more than 25 years, even though he was little better than the first two.

    In 2006, I moved again. I found a new dentist. She’s a beautiful young woman. She’s done some pretty extensive and protracted work in my yap and has never once hurt me. She’s told me I’m her best patient. She’s told me she’s been comfortable performing procedures on me that other people wouldn’t have been able to sit through. I’ve moved again since I met her, yet I still drive more than 45 minutes, one way, to go to her. And I STILL go through precisely the same agita every single time.

    Maybe instead of inventing new dental tools, we should invent a way to give ourselves new wiring.

    Thank you for making me laugh through my terror and for explaining its persistence. I’m happy to know I’m not alone.

  7. Thank you for this, Melissa! As painful as this is, you present it with an entertaining delivery. Although I do not suffer from dental anxiety, I would not consider being my favorite endeavor, especially since I have been lax in visiting. I make a call.💖

  8. Oh my gosh, Melissa, I’m laughing so hard that I have tears rolling down my face (and I think I even did a little snort/squeal laugh at one point). I adore you. I was sitting in that chair with you and you brought every moment to life in technicolor. I would have spilled my wine from laughing, if you’d been sharing this story in real-time, and that, my friend, is the sign of a brilliant story. I’m so sorry you have to endure such torture in order to bring such honesty to the page!

  9. WHAT WERE THE ODDS, Melissa?????? I am deep in dental anxiety right now, thanks to early treatments (back in the dark ages), some not-so-perfect taking care of my teeth, and the reality that I’m now paying the piper (and will for a year or more).

    Remember that movie “Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman? Yup. Just about like that for me.

    I just fired my latest dentist (for not calling me back for an entire week when he knew why I needed him to answer) and his buddy, the periodontist, for his demeaning attitude, for not listening.

    Finally got lucky — a local woman dentist. Her wonderful hygienist, both of whom sat down, looked me in the eyes, and asked me how they could help. Dear heaven, they appear to actually care. And since I’m facing several surgeries and mucho dinero flying out the door … not to mention the STARK FEAR about the whole megillah — phew. I may live after all.

    Why do I think you hit the jackpot with this one? I can’t wait to see how others respond. Of all the topics … 😆🤣😂

    • I feel you, Susan. I have been in dental hell for the last week. I lost a filling (circa 1972) and managed to find my “big girl pants” to make an appointment and get myself in there. He couldn’t have been more dispassionate about my dental anxiety if he tried. When I tried to explain my angst, he literally said, “I am a dentist, not a magician. I cannot make something that is inherently unpleasant pleasant just because you have anxiety.”

      I did find an endodontist who is kind and compassionate, but not until my face swelled up like a cabbage patch kid and my face was on fire. (Stay tuned… it’s this week’s Neuro Nugget.)

      I’m glad you found a good dentist, too!