My first Middle Eastern dental trip was a full-blown disaster. My husband is so often away that I like to preserve family time for nicer things so I went with the children by myself one Saturday morning. On the way into the appointment, we spotted the dentists chatting over a coffee in the hospital cafe. Forty-five minutes later, still waiting to be seen, I wasn’t in the mood for the various lines I was being fed by reception about the cause of the delay, all of them decaffeinated…
Our then 3 year old filled his time in the female-only waiting room by trying to explore beneath the abayas of other women waiting there. I’ll call him Dennis (he says that’s what he will change his name to when he’s 16). When I told him to stop, Dennis licked his way around the glass coffee table before climbing on top of it. When asked to get down, he ran over to the water cooler. Once throughly bored and totally wet, he came up with the idea of heralding the receptionist as ‘The King’ because of his national dress, moving his mayhem out into the foyer.
Finally, we were led into the dental suite, where the dentist embarked on a jaw-dropping row with her assistant, accusing her of stealing her fluoride. As the argument escalated, the dentist leapt up in anger and Dennis saw his chance. He commandeered her swivelly chair, colliding with all sorts of expensive-looking machines as he screeched around the room. With the fluoride fight consuming everyone’s attention, he then went through the dentist’s desk (maybe he and the assistant were working together) before showering us with pink mouth wash.
When order was partially restored and the dentist and her assistant had agreed on a stony silence, we were all inexplicably made to have X rays. Forced to sit in a tiny dark room alone with a piece of plastic rammed inside my mouth, there wasn’t a chance of child crowd control from me. Who knows what they got up to during that time. Weirdly, it was a lovely break.
As we emerged from this 2 hour ordeal, I was handed a £200 bill for things I hadn’t been told about (looking back, maybe it was for criminal damage but I can’t read Arabic). When I refused to pay, the older children prostrated themselves before me, tugging on my abaya, wailing that the police would get us unless I paid. Terrified of the Old Bill, Dennis immediately took flight and I found myself charging down the hospital corridors after him, with the older ones in full histrionic pursuit. I eventually handed over my credit card to ‘The King’ just to try and make it all go away. We never went back to that dentist…
This was almost a year ago. I have needed dental work that whole time but I was frightened to go again. Not just because of this particularly farcical experience. I imagine most people don’t like going to the dentist but for me, this isn’t purely a physical thing, it has become emotional. My aversion began almost a decade ago when a new dentist looked inside my mouth and said ‘Oh my God, what have you done?’
Years of grinding through times of depression and anxiety had left my teeth worn and tired. A visit to the dentist went way beyond an ordinary check up for me. It felt like opening a door on my darkest secrets. When the dentist uttered those words, his judgment seemed to take in all of my mistakes.
Before I went to the ‘Oh my God, what have you done?’ dentist, I used to hope that things weren’t that bad. Maybe other people’s teeth were similar. But with that one exclamation, he left me feeling ashamed and exposed. That check-up taught me that revealing my weakest spots could lead to judgment, sometimes shock, from others. The damage was done and I became panicked about every dental visit after that, desperate never to receive that sort of reaction again.
Thankfully, dentists ever since then have been much more sensitive but all have acknowledged the problem. My UK dentist finally decided I needed restorative treatment but it was right at the point of our departure to the Middle East. There wasn’t enough time to complete the work before we left so she gave me a letter to show my new dentist.
I needed a dentist I could trust with my fears but my first attempt to find one in the desert ramped them up several notches! I ended up taking my worries to my prayerful ladies’ group. They not only prayed, they gave me a recommendation for a dentist.
I don’t want to exaggerate but my current dentist shone like a beacon of hope as she welcomed me into her room for my first appointment. A compassionate and understanding Lebanese woman who lit up as she showed me the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of patients she has helped over the years. She smiled reassuringly as she told me she could do the same for me. Mending, improving, strengthening- this seems to be her aim. Her forte lies in restorative work and she delights in her results. I knew I was in safe hands as she described the crowns she would give me.
I cried at that first appointment. I was so relieved that she not only didn’t judge me but she was so confident she could help. She seemed puzzled by my upset. She was going to make it better. Why was I worried, her expression seemed to ask- why are we looking backwards? She devised a treatment plan and set to work helping me.
The process has been gruelling. It has taken 3 weeks and 5 appointments, some of them 3 hours long. To say my dentist is so lovely, I still felt churned up by the experience and I spent a lot of my time with her praying silently.
It has been an unexpected journey of spiritual discovery. It’s felt as though God has been lovingly making my outer self match my inner self, replacing tired and broken parts of me with new ones. He has spent years mending me on the inside, something he is still doing, and now he seemed to be arranging for my physical self to play catch up.
Several things struck me during the process. From the outset, I decided that I didn’t want to be involved in the work. I would plug myself into my headphones, blast out my music and pretend this wasn’t happening to me. But that didn’t work! The dentist needed me to follow her instructions- to rinse, open wider, bite. I realised after a while that she couldn’t work alone, she needed me to play my part. And it struck me that it’s the same with God. Sometime we want the transformation He offers but we don’t want to be involved. It’s too scary or overwhelming. We hope He’ll somehow fix us from afar. But God rarely, if ever, works without our co-operation. We have to submit and join in.
At one of my longer appointments, the dentist said ‘You must be tired, dear, let us take a break, you need to rest.’ I was touched by her thoughtfulness and I found her words painted a picture of what God does when he sets to work transforming us. He provides time to rest from the changes. He goes at our pace.
But equally there were times when the process was uncomfortable. This petite dentist flexed her muscles when she needed to, tugging, pulling, pressing. She was kind but firm. And again I thought of God. Sometimes he applies pressure and we don’t like it. We want the rest, not the struggle and the pain. But sometimes the struggle and the pain are necessary if we are to experience the transformation.
I heard someone talk recently about the fragile, wet wings of an emerging butterfly, the ultimate creature of metamorphosis. In order to be strengthened, its wings must be crushed as its emerges from its cocoon. Without this process, it will never fly.
Many of us have a secret place where we hide shame or brokenness. We may have tried to share it with others and been discouraged by the reaction we got. We may have had judgments made about us that we can’t forget, that may have even shaped who we have become. Words have huge power, to harm or to heal.
My dental journey has shown me that generally there are far more people wanting to speak life and truth over us than those who would criticise and discourage. It’s reminded me that revealing our fears can lead to help and restoration. And it’s brought me back to that part of my faith that tells me Jesus not only understands our brokenness, he wants to mend it.
At my last session, I was struck by how well this dentist understood my mouth and how little I did. I had no idea whether she could deliver what she had promised. I couldn’t see what she was doing. I couldn’t even guess most of the time. But she had a vision and a plan and I had to trust her. And again I thought of God and the plan he has for us. This is a plan in which we have the starring role and yet we never know how it will turn out. He invites us to trust in things He’s doing, things we often can’t see, and it can be hard!
But yesterday, when the dentist handed me a mirror to look at my new smile, I knew it had been a good plan. She hadn’t made me the way I once was. Like God, she didn’t turn back time. She created something new, something different but also the same, all at once.
And as I looked in the mirror at myself, instead of fearing that haunting ‘Oh my God, what have you done?’ exclamation from my past, I admired my mended brokenness and prayed thankfully ‘Oh my God, what have you done.’