Dealing with Dental Guilt

a radio commentary broadcast on Jefferson Public Radio's The Jefferson Daily
Tuesday, July 15, 1997
(c)1997 by Fred Flaxman

HOST: Commentator Fred Flaxman has brushed his teeth after every meal - even lunch - and flossed every night before going to bed ever since his last trip to the dentist. He's worried about becoming a dental saint. Here's why:

FLAXMAN: For me, going to the dentist is the opposite of seeing a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists help alleviate feelings of guilt; dentists instill them. You can go to your dentist feeling good about yourself, your accomplishments, your life - and return home convinced that you will be severely punished with periodontal disease if you consistently fail to floss.

The picture he paints of your future is so bleak, purgatory looks like paradise by comparison. Bleeding gums, decaying teeth, root canal work, crowns, loosing your teeth altogether and - worst of all - unprecedented dental bills are certain to await those who are too busy to brush or too fastidious to floss.

And all this is almost literally drilled into you while you are confined to the dentist's chair and he picks away at your tartar-filled nooks and crevices. He has a captive audience - you - and a half hour or so of your undivided attention while you stare up at the ceiling with nothing better to do than to count the acoustic tiles.

"Have you been flossing?" my dentist asked on my last visit, as he asks on every visit.

"I refuse to answer on the grounds that my reply might tend to incriminate me," I retorted, hoping that the Fifth Amendment would protect me if all of a sudden the dentist's chair became, as it so often does, electrified.

But dentists know when you haven't been flossing. And when you haven't listened to their previous admonitions, they have ways of getting back at you. My previous dentist used to send in his most sadistic dental assistant to scrape at my teeth until my gums bled. That's why he is my previous dentist.

My current dentist is such a nice guy, I feel even more guilty when I visit him. How could I possibly present this college educated, clean cut, middle class, decent doctor of dentistry with such a dirty, plaque-infested, tartar-ridden mouth? Is he wearing thin rubber gloves because he is worried about getting AIDS, or is he just protecting himself from the filthy mouths of the great unflossed?

I've read that dentists have the highest suicide rate of any profession. I can understand why. Day after day they look into cigarette-stained orifices, fill cavities, inject Novocain, and deal with screaming kids. The kids alone would drive most people mad. Their job is like pulling teeth.

But then again, dentists charge a lot more than other people whose job it is to clean something. Garbage men, for example, remove considerably more waste twice a week than dental assistants do twice a year. And how much do they make? Or maids? Or waiters?

Still, I wouldn't want to spend eight hours a day doing what dentists have to do to make a living, no matter how good a living they make. Maybe they do charge what the traffic will bear. They deserve what they get.

This is Fred Flaxman.

HOST: Commentator Fred Flaxman writes a column called "Compact Discoveries" for the Jefferson Monthly, Jefferson Public Radio's membership magazine. He is also a regular columnist for the Ashland Lithiagraph.