Dental and Aging Insights
I had my first and second root canals within the same year. I’m not sure there’s anything that can scare me like a root canal.
When I was a kid, I distinctly remember an encounter with the dentist. I was about 11 I think, so this would have been about 1966. Yes, I’m what you would call an Older Guy now! But I was a kid once too. Anyway, this was not a positive experience at the dentist. Apparently I had 8 or more cavities that day. There was a LOT of work to do. And Mom and Dad couldn’t afford to come back; they had to get as much done that day as possible. So the anesthetic kept wearing off (my fast young metabolism), and I would start screaming in pain. So they would stick more needles in my mouth and off we’d go until the novacaine wore off again.
At this point in my life, my parents had just lost their house because of my Dad’s being swindled in a business deal. He would have learned to be a good business man, had he only had the chance, but he couldn’t afford to learn at his family’s expense. I respect him for this. I’m sure it was a difficult decision–to not try again and risk his (and our) financial future. But I bet this choice about doing all cavities at the same time had to do directly with his having just lost his business and our main house in Alameda, CA.
Anyway, I have a friend who is getting his first root canal today, and he mentioned that he wasn’t sure he could meet with me this afternoon as planned because of this root canal, and he wasn’t sure what to expect. I mentioned that his mouth will probably feel very numb, and even though it wouldn’t feel bad, a lot of talking would probably not be the best thing, since he wouldn’t be able to control his speech very well, and if he bit himself, he might have no idea until the blood started running out of his mouth. So I suggested it might be best to meet up another time and just take a rest after the root canal. He’s a very hard worker, and he might have a hard time giving himself a break, but I hope he uses this root canal as an excuse to take a much deserved break. He really earns his breaks!
Anyway, for me, dental problems are among my scariest experiences. They register an 11 on my Dread Scale. (It normally only goes from 1 to 10.) I cannot remember a lot about that first dental experience of mine except that it was horrible. And when I recently had my first, and then my second, root canal, I was understandably very afraid.
My First Root Canal (and Second Too!)
My first root canal (and my second too) turned out to be uneventful. It was totally routine. Inside, I was scared shitless. But the people around me were very compassionate and friendly and helpful. They gave me Chapstick to put on my lips before the procedure. There were lots of peaceful and comforting photographs around, very soothing colors and comfortable decorations. Everything seemed designed to ease my stress. The chair was comfortable, and there were lots of magazines that looked interesting to me.
The endontist and his staff were completely professional, and yet they treated me like family. They were completely aware of my stress, but they seemed able to ease my stress at the same time.
They had literally done thousands (10’s or 100’s of thousands maybe?) of these procedures, so there were probably not going to be any big surprises inside my mouth. Indeed, they had found my abscess in very good time, before the pain started, so there would be no complications from that end. The abscess was quite small still, and apparently that’s what could cause problems with the anesthetic.
Before I knew it, the procedure was done. It had lasted perhaps a half hour.
For a brief time, my mouth was so full of equipment that it was like Jay Leno’s garage in there. The Chapstick had come in handy. There was a bright green latex screen stretched over my mouth to isolate my tooth. This made me afraid I was going to suffocate. But it was fine, I could breathe perfectly. But as a result of this screen, they didn’t really need to get inside my mouth except for this one tooth. All of the work was confined to that tooth. I could swallow perfectly and so forth. And, there was utterly no pain, except for the needle, which wasn’t bad at all.
In other words, they had really figured out how to do a root canal. I had imagined this awful experience, and it turned out to be almost a non-event. All of my dread had been in vain. This wound up being less stressful than rush hour traffic, by a longshot.
One of my memories from that dental experience as a child, the bad experience, is of my mom telling me about one of her childhood dental experience. She had had her share of bad dental experiences as a kid too. I’m pretty sure she had a thing for sweets just like I did/do.
I’m 62 now. I’ll be 63 pretty soon as I write this. I can say from experience that root canals have a way of making me feel old and vulnerable. Feeling vulnerable is not something that I do easily. I’m working on getting better at it, but let’s face it–I’m not good at it. I tend to resist aging pretty heavily. But I’m finding that when I feel old, if I can just top my normal response to the feeling, I can connect to a compassionate place that includes all of my parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents. Instead of feeling terrible about getting old, I can begin to have a different experience.
I’m trying to get better at remembering to trying something else when I feel old. My normal response to feeling old is fear. There’s a whole bunch of fear talk inside my head. And when that happens I try to remember to get past that and find compassion for old people.
I’m an old people now! Not as old as some old people. But if my 11-yr-old self saw me now, I would definitely call myself an old people. Hell, if my 30-yr-old self saw me now, he would say I’m old. But in reality, I’m still the same basic me. I just have more wrinkles and fat, and quite a bit less hair–on my head at least.
What I mean by this is that process of getting out of fear when I see how old I am. It feels like life is all downhill from here. It feels like there’s nothing to look forward to and so forth. I get afraid that root canals are the least of the problems I have yet to experience. There are all of these fears that just come . . . I don’t even know from where they come. I guess they’re just unconscious. But they just seem to come automatically.
So, if I just accept that these fears will come, and if I can just let them be okay, then I can sit with them. I can ask myself about what is my actual experience with aging, and I really don’t have very much first-hand experience with aging. 63 is pretty young by today’s standards. People live longer than they did when I was a youngster. So I remember that my parents lived until their mid-70s, and some of my grandparents lived into their 80s. I think there were some who lived into their 90s. So, I guess I really don’t know how old I can grow. But however old I grow, I can be compassionate with myself and my age.
So I guess mindful aging is really about having self-compassion.
It also seems to help to remember my parents and my grandparents. And even my great-grandparents. Their worlds were very different. Psychotherapy was not really a thing normal people did, for example. Self-awareness and self-improvement were not terms that you heard in common usage. It was just a very different culture than today’s culture for older people.
There were also many, many things that people did not talk about. They didn’t talk about pain very much, I don’t think. People suffered in silence. Honestly, I think it was just harder for people to be vulnerable then too. I think it’s a little easier today to own your vulnerability (appropriate vulnerability I mean).
I think parents believed in protecting their children during this time. My own parents still believed in this. But I do not believe in over-sheltering children. I think this was a parenting mistake that I corrected, or that I at least managed to improve upon with my own child. I gave her credit for being able to handle hardship.
For example, when my daughter’s mom (my beloved wife) was dying from cancer, I encouraged Ginny to say good bye, even though she was 9, by getting into her mom’s bed and giving her one last long hug good bye while her mom was still lucid.
This was an extremely tearful and painful moment. But I think my child was able to deal with her grief better than if she had not been allowed to say good bye. While I didn’t share every detail of experience with her mom’s death with her, I didn’t try to shield her very much either. We talked about our feelings whenever we could. Whether they were difficult or not.
Emotional awareness is a priority for me now. And it has been for my daughter too.
When I look back in time to my great-grandparents’ time, I can see that there was plenty of death in daily life. There still is. But the more we try to protect our selves or our children from it, the more we resist death, the worse our lives become.
The more we try to numb our bad feelings, the more numb we become to the good feelings too.
My hope is that when my life is done, I can do my family proud in how I have aged. I want to have owned my fears. I want to have acted inspite of the fears and tried to live life courageously despite my age.
I’d love to live so that if I get together with my ancestors in the Spirit World, we can all have a great laugh together about how fun old age was and what a great time we had as old-timers!