Tuesday night was a bad, bad night. Hubby wanted to watch a show we have been watching together, and he was in the mood to cuddle. I’d been pretty cold and distant and giving off a “no touch” vibe the last few months, and was feeling guilty about this. So, I cuddled up to him, and promptly zoned out. This thing happens, whenever someone touches me; I feel frozen, as if my whole body is tense, my mind goes blank, and I feel like I am on the edge of waiting for something really bad to happen. I’ve found away to fix that particular problem, though. I simply instigate things, and get it over with. Which is exactly what I did Tuesday night.
Things did not go well. Instead of going far, far away, and staying there, I was alternating between being far away and feeling very present in my body. Those moments of being present led to a freak-out of epic proportions, and ended with me buried under blankets and my pillow, curled into a ball on my stomach in bed, frozen and crying, scared out of my mind. I was in that place of no words, and I was not this 32 year old grown up woman in bed with her husband. I was 9 years old, with HIM.
Hubby, for his part, tried to handle this situation as calmly as possible. But I wouldn’t talk, and based on the fact that he questioned if he had done something, I’m going to go ahead and assume he was upset, worried, feeling badly, and anxious that he couldn’t fix it. At one point, he asked if he should call Bea. That panicked me enough that I managed to shout “No. Do not call her,” at him.
I didn’t really sleep, and ended up getting up around 4am, cutting and then going on with my day. I cut, and was able to gain some control, some feeling of safety, something I don’t know how to put into words. But it “fixed” me enough that I was able to get on with my day. I set about cleaning the kitchen, getting Kat’s things for school together, and then relaxed with a cup of coffee.
The morning after, once hubby got up, was awkward. Neither of us mentioned the freak-out. He did, however, have a surprise for me. He informed me that I had a dentist appointment that morning, to meet a new dentist. We had discussed that he needed to set up appointments and take me. So, I wasn’t surprised, exactly, but after the night I’d had, I felt blind sided.
“I don’t want to go. Let’s cancel today,” I told him.
“We are going, I’m taking you, it will be fine. This is a female dentist and the office was very nice on the phone. We are going to go meet her today.”
I continued arguing, and finally gave in. “Okay. We’ll go meet her.”
“It’s no big deal. She’s just going to talk with us, and maybe do a quick exam and some X-rays if they need them,” hubby informed me.
What? Exam?! X-rays?! No. No. I agreed to meet her and talk to her. Ugh! “I just want to talk. Okay?”
“She’s just going to do a quick exam. No big deal.” Hubby attempted to reassure me.
I repeated a few times that I only wanted to talk, I didn’t even want to go today, but he remained firm in his position that it was no big deal, and I would be fine. I gave up talking to him and emailed Bea. She responded almost right away, with the perfect thing. She validated how scary this was for me, reassured me I was not crazy, and then offered up some suggestions to stay grounded and gave me a mini mantra to repeat to myself. Her words gave me courage, and I felt like I wasn’t alone in this.
With the feeling of validation and reassurance that I was acting perfectly normal given my history, I went back to hubby. “You aren’t hearing me. You haven’t been listening to what I am saying. I don’t even want to go to the dentist today. I will go, but I only want to talk. I do not want to be touched today, and I do not want anyone in my personal space. Last night was a bad night, and I am feeling very triggered. So, I will go and talk, but that is all that is happening today.” I spoke calmly and clearly. I wasn’t yelling, or freaking out at him, or being over reactive. This is new for me; to stand up for myself like this, and not be in emotional flashback-crazy girl-over reactive mode.
He looked shocked, and didn’t speak for a full minute. Then he said, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to not listen. We’ll just go and talk. That’s fine. I’m sorry.”
Before we left, I wrote a note about having PTSD and really needing a dentist who could be patient, kind, and understanding with me because there are so many things at the dentist that trigger me. I gave it to hubby, and we agreed that if I liked the new dentist, he would share what I’d written.
An hour later. I sat in the dentist’s office, in an exam room. I’d chosen to sit in a real chair, leaving hubby to sit in the dental chair. I wasn’t going to even risk being in that chair. When the dentist walked in, she smiled, and introduced herself as Dr. R. She was confused for a minute about who she was seeing, due to hubby being in the chair, but when he corrected her that I was the patient, she rolled with it. Hubby informed her that I only wanted to talk today, and not have my mouth looked at. If she was annoyed or found that weird, she didn’t show it. And I’m hypersensitive to those things (to the point of seeing them when they don’t exist), so I believe I would have picked up on it.
We discussed my general anxiety, my being terminated as a patient by several dentist due to my constant canceling of appointments, and she told us a little about herself. It turns out, she is the only one in the practice– she does it all, from teeth cleaning to dental work like root canals and cavities. I liked this about her; only having to see one person at the dentist office will give me more opportunities to build a relationship and foster trust. This also means the office is very quiet, with no one walking around behind me in the hallway, or walking into the exam room to ask questions. She was very soft spoken, but confident.
I liked her, and after talking for about 30 minutes, she asked if I was feeling open to having a quick exam, or if I would be more comfortable waiting until another appointment. I slowly nodded, “I think it would be okay today.” Then I looked at hubby at said, “You can tell her.” I wanted her to know about the PTSD before she did any type of exam. Bea had said that telling my dentist would help them understand some of the fear I have. I trust Bea, and I liked Dr. R, and so I decided to tell her about the true nature of my anxiety.
Hubby told her, explaining that I was showing a lot of trust in her right now, and that he hoped that if Dr. R was aware of my PTSD, it would help her understand me a little better. She listened and then she turned to me. “We can work with this. I can handle this. After my dental schooling, I did some more training, working with veterans, and most of them had PTSD. A lot of times, abused or traumatized women were referred to me, too. I spent 2 years in that program, and most of it was working with traumatized people. So, we can do this together.”
I was stunned. Hubby had not known her background, he had simply been looking for a dentist that took our insurance and was female. I nodded at her. “Okay.”
“Can I ask some questions about things that are common triggers? So I can have an idea of what is hard for you?” She asked. I nodded, and she ran down a list of things, ranging from having things in your mouth, to having the chair laying back, to not being able to speak. I loved that she listed out things that may be triggering, as opposed to dentists I have seen in the past who simply ask me what gives me the most anxiety. That type of open ended question is very hard to answer. She brought up things I wouldn’t have even thought about, but once she mentioned them, I could easily see a connection between my fear and that trigger.
“I also want to bring up the medication you typically have been prescribed for the dentist. I’m okay with giving you that option, but I believe that the twilight medications may make dental fears worse, especially for those with PTSD. If you can’t remember the appointment, that feels safe in the moment, but it doesn’t give you a memory of an experience that wasn’t scary. I’d like to prescribe something for anxiety, like a Valium, and maybe have you take that for a cleaning appointment. We could have the twilight medication on hand, in case you need it, but trying to have some positive experiences that you can remember may be helpful.”
I listened, but only shrugged.
“We don’t have to decide today. You can even decide the day of the appointment, because I can prescribe both medications.” She assured me.
At that point, I climbed, hesitantly into the dental chair. I was sitting upright, and very rigid.
“I’m not going to do anything until you are ready, and when you are, I’m going to use my mirror–” she held a small mirror dental tool out to me– “and my fingers to look at the tooth that still needs a crown. That’s all I’m going to do today.”
“Will you stop right away if I need you to?” I whispered the question, very much back in the little girl mindset. Usually, I feel incredibly embarrassed when the little girl starts to run the ship while I am around people who don’t really know me– dentists, doctors, my daughter’s teachers– but this time, I felt okay. I knew Dr. R understood PTSD, and so it was okay.
“Right away. I like to give people a way to communicate. So if you hold up your hand, at anytime, that means stop. And I’ll stop and step back right away. If you hold up one finger, that means yes. If you hold up two fingers, that means no. Does that sound okay?”
I nodded, and then feeling brave, asked, “Can I stay sitting up?”
She nodded, and informed me that she would try to always have me sit up, unless she needed me laying back in order to get to a spot in my mouth. When I gave the okay, she started a quick exam. And I froze. Then, I gagged, and my breathing changed from normal to hyperventilating. Tears leaked out of my eyes. She stopped what she was doing right away, without me asking. And then, she did something more. “Alice, can you look at my wallpaper? Can you see the wall and wallpaper, straight ahead? What colors do you see in the wallpaper?” Dr. R’s voice had that gentle tone, the one Bea uses when she is talking to the little girl, but she also sounded firm, like she expected me to follow her directions.
So, I looked at the wallpaper. There were vertical stripes, separating it into wide panels. Every other panel had a flower pattern running through it, flowers on a vertical vine. Green and yellow, red, orange, pink. I started to feel calmer. “Okay. I’m okay,” I told her. “You can finish.”
She gave me another few minutes, and then resumed the exam. While she looked at my tooth, she asked me about the pictures I saw on the walls, and told me how she had chosen each of them. There were 3 pictures, paintings, all Victorian garden scenes. It fit well with the office, which is located in an old Victorian home, and decorated to match. Which I love. Growing up, my favorite doll was the American girl doll, Samantha. She was the girly Victorian doll. I’ve always loved that era.
By the time we left, I had 3 appointments set up. The first is a cleaning, and we are going to try using Valium to see if I can begin to build some good dentist experiences. After the way Dr. R handled my freak-out, I feel pretty comfortable with her. The second is to finish the cleaning (we decided to split it up to make it easier on me) and to make a mold for the crown, if I feel okay about doing it that day. The last is to put the crown into place.
I was so excited about this positive dental experience, and the little girl really wanted to tell Bea all about it. I don’t usually email her positive things, because I don’t want to take more time from her, or something. And it seems silly to email something I don’t need support for, especially when I was seeing her the next day. But the little girl part really, really wanted Bea to know right now. So, I emailed, and told her I was so excited that I could t wait to share this. She emailed back, just a quick note, saying she was excited, too. The little girl was oddly settled the rest of the day, and I felt fairly calm, too, even if not all there.