It has taken us some time to set up our new life in Hawaii. We finally have a rainbow on our driver’s licenses, the school situation sorted out, housing, cars, a pediatrician. But one item that continually went unchecked on my to do list was, “find a dentist.”
When I finally got the kids to the dentist, I was pretty worried. Hawaii, with abundant tropical fruits, has the highest rate of dental decay in the country. I had no idea what the dentist might find. While filling out the preliminary paperwork, I had to answer the question, “Are you concerned about anything in particular?” In response, I wrote, “Every aspect of going to the dentist makes me anxious.”
The dentist saw my children first. When she came over to examine my teeth, she didn’t smile or greet me. She charged right in with, “Your daughter has extreme dental decay. Does she drink Gatorade? Vitamin Water? Soda? Once this kind of bacteria gets into the mouth, you can never fully get rid of it.” She might as well have shook her head and said, “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” but fortunately she didn’t.
After my exam, a hygienist took me to an inner office to discuss “the dental plan.” I learned that my oldest child, who had always had stellar visits to the dentist back in Chicago, who reported no pain and had no visible signs of decay, was in need of several crowns on her baby teeth, as well as — something I’d never heard of before — “baby root canals.”
“She’s 8 years old,” I said. “She’s already lost half her baby teeth. Do you really think she needs crowns and root canals on teeth that are just going to fall out?”
I needed somebody to tell me that this was not the worst case they’d ever seen, that the problem could be solved through a series of manageable steps. I needed to know, at that moment, what my choices were and what possible outcomes might occur. Instead, she said, “The bacteria that is causing the decay could get into her bloodstream … and into her heart!”
Take a Step Back
This is the point at which I wish I’d done things differently. I wish I’d said, “I need time to think about this. Please copy the x-rays and the doctor’s notes so that I can get a second opinion.” But at that moment, I couldn’t imagine subjecting myself to more exposure. The situation seemed urgent enough that I booked a second appointment without hesitation.
As I look back on this, I realize that my experience in the dental office was similar to other experiences I’d had in doctor’s offices, churches and schools. Shame was clouding my judgment and causing me to make a decision that I might not have made if I was given more time and space to think about it.
When I was in college, I interviewed a counselor named Kent Burtner who has helped thousands to exit cults. As I reflected on my visit to this dentist, pieces of the interview came back to me. Burtner told me that the abuse of power can occur anywhere — it is a disturbingly wide-spread phenomenon with both religious and secular manifestations.
He said that this technique is used to make recruits: “The message is ‘you failed; you don’t have anything better, but I’ll show you something better. Here’s the way.’” When I think of the way the dentist spoke to me and her insistence that there was only one reasonable course of action, I can see clearly now what was being taken away: my ability to choose.
According to Burtner, shame is often employed to short-circuit a person’s decision-making process. The ability to choose is part of what makes us human, but it is also a reflection of the image of God in us. To take this away from a person is a terrible violation. “The corruption of the individual is the ultimate tragedy,” Burtner said, “The loss of the choices that person could have made.”
That dentist had an obvious advantage: She was trained and experienced. She had fancy tools and elaborate charts. I only had an overwhelming sense of guilt, a brand-new dental insurance policy, and the desire to see my children in the best possible health.
Still, I had another tool at my disposal, one that is more powerful than technology or education: intuition. I had a gnawing sense that something just wasn’t right, which I managed to repress somewhat during the first two appointments.
While working on my last book, Naming the Child: Hope-filled Reflections on Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death, I discovered that many mothers have an intuitive sense about their children. Sometimes they know on some deep, non-verbal level that something is wrong, even when medical tests don’t confirm this.
When I consulted with psychologist, Dr. Victor Shamas, who specializes in intuition, he said that while it can be normal for parents to worry about their kids, intuition comes from a much deeper place. “These signals have a force and clarity that are unmistakable.”
Despite my qualms, I went ahead with the first procedure. But my fears kept coming back. Something about this dentist’s approach just wasn’t compatible with my own.
There were several more appointments scheduled, several thousand dollars of treatment recommended. But my unease only continued to increase, until I started calling around. When other dentists confirmed that there might be other, less-invasive options, I decided to pull all our records and begin afresh with a new provider.
This time, when I filled out the preliminary paperwork, I did not admit my fear. Instead, I wrote in all caps, “I WANT TO BE TREATED WITH RESPECT.” After the new dentist examined my children’s teeth she said something I will never forget. She said, “Dentistry is much more subjective than people realize. I want to help educate you. I want you to know what your choices are.”
Ahh … this was music to my ears. But what was even more surprising was that where the other dentist saw deep cavities that would require sedation for my youngest, this dentist saw shallow cavities that weren’t even worth filling yet. Where the other saw “extreme dental decay,” this dentist saw some cavities, but it was a manageable situation, that would not involve “baby root canals,” crowns or any such thing, just fillings.
I wish I didn’t have to learn so many things the hard way, but still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep learning. As C.S. Lewis said,
What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing. You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be able to go very far before the warning signs appear. You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you. The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.
So this is what I learned when I put my first experience to the test: Things aren’t always as they seem. Sometimes, they actually aren’t as bad as they seem.
And when somebody shames you — be it dentist, doctor, pastor or professor, take a step back. Don’t make quick decisions. You have the right (and duty) to get a second opinion. Guard your choices. They are a sacred gift.
Ultimately, it is from this luminous choosing part of ourselves that we reach toward all that is hopeful. It is from this place of freedom that all good and lasting growth comes.
The article was originally published on Boundless Webzine (link) - and the article image is provided courtesy of Boundless.