Time has no meaning in this godforsaken cell.
How long have I been sitting here?
The windowless walls feel like they’re closing in around me. A single neon light above gives the room an eerie glow and makes every shadow a distorted monstrosity. There I sit, alone, nervously awaiting whoever comes through a lone door in the corner.
Next to me, a small table full of sharp and twisted instruments that will surely be used to inflict excruciating amounts of pain.
I tell myself to not look at them, and yet I can’t look away.
As I silently curse my predicament, I can’t help but think, “please get this over with.” After all, waiting is the worst part.
Actually, it’s the second worst. The worst, of course, is knowing that I have nobody to blame for this predicament but myself. Afterall, it was my choices that led me here.
The door opens and a woman enters. She quietly puts on a pair of rubber gloves and gives me a look that turns my blood cold. I am convinced her overly pleasant smile is hiding an absolutely masochistic psychosis.
“Hello Stephen. Shall we begin?” she says in an accent that I can’t quite place.
The metal chair activates, and slowly begins to recline into the floor.
I stare up at the ceiling, slowly close my eyes, and quietly begin to panic.
For the first time in 3 years, I am at the dentist.
Why I hate the Dentist
You’re probably now saying, “Damnit, Steve! I thought you were actually in trouble. You’re just going to the dentist! You are a terrible person and I hope somebody kicks you in the shin today.”
Sorry about that. I promise this has a point and you will learn a valuable life lesson today.
If you couldn’t tell, I hate the dentist. In fact, I would say have an actual phobia of going to one. And last week, for the first time in 3 years, I got my teeth cleaned.
I’m not afraid of the dentist because of the sterility of the building, or because the dentist himself is scary, or the fact that it’s always uncomfortable for me.
It’s more deeply rooted in shame back to my childhood, believe it or not.
When I was younger I used to drink a lot of sugary soda. Sunkist and Sprite were my favorites. Oh and Starburst candy! I also have soft teeth. So it wasn’t surprising that I would eventually get a cavity – I remember it like it was yesterday, because I thought it was the end of the world. I saw it as a major character defect, and if I remember correctly, my mom had to console me that it didn’t make me a broken person. Despite this deep shame I felt about my teeth being imperfect, I didn’t want to accept it.
… And that led to more problems.
Every time I would go to the dentist, it felt like I was playing Russian Roulette. Sometimes I would get a good check-up. Sometimes I would get drilled.
And every time I got drilled, the shame came rushing back. And so going to the dentist became an actual fear of mine.
Every 6 months, I could feel the hairs on my neck instinctively stand up when I found out it was time for my routine cleaning. The car ride to the dentist with my mom felt like William Wallace’s ride to the chopping block: “I don’t know what you’re going to do to me, but please just get it over with.”
It was never the time in the chair that ruined me, it was the anxiety leading up to the moment the dental hygienist would get started.
WORRYING that I would get yelled at, KNOWING that I probably had a cavity, and WAITING for them to decide my teeth’s fate. Sometimes they would drill. Sometimes they would lecture me on flossing. Sometimes I would get a clean bill of health.
Regardless of the outcome, I was a little ball of stress walking in. Every single time.
Now that I’m older, my dental hygiene has significantly improved. I’ve been using an electric toothbrush for years. I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat candy, and I generally take care of my mouth. I even bought those little floss pick things and manage to floss every once in awhile!
And we all know how hard flossing is. Mitch Hedberg said it best:
“People who smoke cigarettes, they say “You don’t know how hard it is to quit smoking.” Yes I do. It’s as hard as it is to start flossing.”
Anyways, my last cavity was in like 2008, and regular visits to the dentist were fine until 2013.
However, since I’ve moved so damn much since starting Nerd Fitness, my insurance has changed a bazillion times, and I have this irrational fear of the dentist, I’ve conveniently been “too busy” to go to the dentist for the past few years.
I used every excuse in the book for years as to why I couldn’t be bothered to get my teeth cleaned. It wasn’t my fault. I just had other things that had to happen first. For YEARS.
Can you see what’s REALLY happening here?
Obviously I know dental hygiene is really important. I have an insurance plan that covers a free teeth cleaning every six months, which means not going is a dumb thing to do. The sooner I go to the dentist, the sooner I can learn if there are any issues, and the sooner I can get rid of any hidden build-up before it becomes a problem.
Logically, I know all of these things. And yet it had been 3 years since my last dental visit.
Why? Because I was afraid.
In my head, I told myself: “If you don’t go to the dentist, then you can’t be told you have a cavity. If you can’t be told you have a cavity, then you don’t have one. Aka you have perfect dental health. There’s no ambiguity or anxiety. Problem solved!”
You might read that sentence and say, “Steve, you are being ridiculous. If you have a cavity, waiting LONGER to deal with it is only making the problem worse. You are a grown man who owns a fitness company. This is absurd.”
To those, people I say, “DON’T YOU THINK I ALREADY KNOW THAT!?” I’m not saying my thought process is rational or even intelligent here. In fact, I know it’s really really really dumb. I know how important it can be to take care of myself. I go to the gym 4 days per week. I get plenty of sleep! I eat pretty damn well! I really take care of myself.
And yet, my brain convinced me for 3 years to avoid the dentist and thus avoid judgment/pain/acknowledgment that my teeth aren’t perfect.
That is absurd, and yet… here we are.
Last week, my anxiety, shame, and guilt all came flooding back the second I walked down that dental office hallway, past cell after cell, until I reached mine. I felt like a character in the most recent Hostel or Saw movie.
Now, you might have read all of the above and can actually relate: “Ha! I’ve totally done the same thing! Can’t get in trouble if I don’t go right?! Can’t get a cavity if nobody tells me I have one! It’s science.”
Whichever camp you happen to fall in, I have a lesson for you.
You might not relate to this irrational fear of the dentist, but I bet there’s a darkness your life that you’re avoiding too.
In your relationships, your job, or even looking in the mirror…
What’s hiding in the darkness?
Somebody left a comment on a recent article I wrote about shame, guilt, hero-worship, and offending people: “This isn’t anything that offended me, it just casts a light where I don’t want to look. I’m tired of doing this to myself. I’m done with fooling myself. My belly hitting the desk in front of me has pissed me off for the last time.”
We all do it!
As long as we pretend like whatever is hiding in the darkness doesn’t exist, then we don’t have to confront it or deal with it. If we don’t address, acknowledge, or measure it, then we can pretend that this particular thing, obscured by darkness, isn’t real. And thus, we can go on naively innocent assuming all is well.
Even if the last time we looked in the darkness was years ago. Kind of like Schroedinger’s cat… my teeth were both perfect and imperfect at the same time – that as long as I didn’t look in the box, both existed and thus I could continue judgment and acknowledgment-free.
And I get it, the darkness is scary!
The Darkness is also an awesome band from the mid 2000s, but that’s neither here nor there.
I’m reminded of the amazing dog cartoon you’ve definitely seen – he’s sitting there as a fire engulfs his surroundings. Despite this madness, he’s quietly drinking his coffee saying “this is fine.”
Some might say this is a dog resigned to his fate, like the captain of the Titanic going down with his ship. Might as well enjoy a cup of coffee, saying “this is fine” while the world burns.
Instead, I look at it from a different angle. Mostly because then all of this makes sense, and I can live out my dream of sharing this comic in a NF article and help you live a better life.
What if this dog is refusing to accept the fact that HIS HOUSE IS BURNING DOWN, and instead chooses to tell his brain, “This is fine. All is well. No need to panic.” Of course, had he panicked sooner, he could have just… left the building.
I am this dog on fire when it comes to my teeth. Everything is fine! Don’t pay attention to your mouth. Just ignore it. If you don’t go to the dentist, you can assume your teeth are as perfect as the last time you had them cleaned. Even if that was years ago and one of your teeth sometimes hurts.
We need to confront the darkness, and we need to do it now. We can’t ignore the obscured parts of our lives we want to avoid and tell ourselves, “This is fine.”
Are you guilty of any of the following rationalizations?:
- If I don’t step on the scale, then I don’t need to address the fact that I have slowly put on 5 pounds a year for the past decade.
- If I don’t look at my bank statement, then I don’t need to address how little money I have, and I don’t need to start saving. YOLOOOOO TIME TO BUY ANOTHER GADGET.
- If I don’t go to the doctor and get an annual physical, then I don’t have to get yelled at and have him tell me i’m overweight and at risk for Type-2 diabetes.
- If I don’t check my credit score, then I don’t need to address the fact that I have “the credit score of a homeless ghost” (shout out to New Girl) and address the fact that I have a spending and credit problem.
- If I don’t tell my kid that I found his drug stash, then I can go on naively assuming he’s still the little angel I raised him to be.
- If I don’t have this uncomfortable conversation with my partner, then I don’t need to address the fact that I’m in a loveless relationship or that I’m no longer attracted to them.
- If I don’t go see a therapist then I don’t have to confront the fact that my mom was a shitty parent and I’m doing the same thing to my daughter.
- If I don’t open my mail or answer my phone, then I can’t talk to the bill collector and avoid the fact that I’m three house payments behind. Lalalalala, can’t hear you.
- If I don’t take the red pill and see how deep this rabbit hole goes, then I don’t have to address the fact that I’m in a prison for my mind and I can go back to my blissfully ignorant life in The Matrix.
We have dark corners we purposefully avoid, and we don’t want to know what’s in them. Shining a bright, powerful spotlight on the thing we don’t want to acknowledge can be horribly PAINFUL.
In my mind, it’s also the grown-up thing to do. As we all try to do a bit more adulting (even me, at age 32), we need to confront the darkness. After all, we know the truth.
That through avoidance and refusal to peer into that darkness, and the longer we wait to confront what’s hiding in there, the WORSE it gets. That every day we wait to confront the problem is making our eventual confrontation harder and harder on ourselves A simple cavity becomes surgery. Slightly overweight becomes obese. Obese becomes life threatening. Poor becomes broke. And the whole time we’re sitting there going “this is fine”.
So help yourself, and go get a big damn flashlight.
Shine a light and own it.
There is a BIG challenge that comes with shining a light on something you’ve purposefully kept hiding in the darkness.
Whatever it is, it might be significantly WORSE than you ever thought possible:
- That the scale is much higher than expected. Like 75 pounds heavier. FML.
- That I actually have less than no money. I can’t believe I bought that crap last week.
- That I have 6 cavities and need to get a tooth pulled. Shit.
- That talking to a therapist absolutely destroys me and digs up all kind of mental issues and years of pain and abuse I’ve been avoiding.
- That I can’t afford this house I’m underwater on and need to move back home with my parents.
- That this business was a stupid idea, and I need to declare bankruptcy.
- That I am somehow a dog, and sitting in a building that’s actually on fire.
- That I’ve actually been living in The Matrix this whole time.
- That we have a painful conversation with a spouse who we learn has been cheating on us.
If you’re not prepared for it, if you aren’t ready to handle an answer that MIGHT be worse than you expected… learning the truth might hurt. Badly.
If we’re not careful, this truth can cause us to sink further into shame or depression. We might feel ashamed of how badly we’ve botched things. Or guilty that we let things get so bad. Or stupid and worthless for not asking for help years earlier instead of suffering in silence.
Which is what we’re all really afraid of and why we avoid shining the light.
We assume the “not knowing” is safer and less painful than the truth. As long as we don’t know, it can never be worse than we think it could be.
Unfortunately, the “not knowing” is also what keeps us prisoner, keeps us from addressing the problem head on, and always leads to more heartache (or toothache, heyo!) for ourselves. And we can’t start solving the problem until we learn what it is and how big it is.
This is the hard part, but also the most important.
Feelings of shame and self-blame are going to rush in. The challenge is not identifying with that stuff. When I felt stupid and embarrassed for not going into the dentist for so long, it was hard not getting caught up in those feelings. But once they pass, the clouds part and you realize: hey, I’m here and owning up to this. I can’t fix yesterday, so I feel pride for finally stepping up and addressing this issue. I’m alive, “this too shall pass”.
So accept responsibility for your actions and say: “Okay, holy crap that is worse than I expected. I am GLAD I caught it now rather than waiting even longer. What can I start doing today to fix this situation?”
In other words, shine a damn light and own it:
DO NOT be mad at yourself for letting it get this bad.
DO NOT let yourself get depressed about how much further you just realized you have to go to climb out of the hole you suddenly find yourself in.
As Rafiki taught Simba in The Lion King: “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”
DO NOT BE MAD AT HOW BAD THINGS ARE.
INSTEAD, BE PROUD OF YOURSELF for finally stepping up and addressing it.
As the saying goes, you are under no obligation to continue being who you were 5 minutes ago. The OLD you was the one avoiding addressing these challenges. The OLD you was naive and stupid and young (I don’t care if the OLD you was 5 minutes ago).
The NEW you is older and wiser and stepping up to take ownership and action.
You still might be scared poopless, but at least you’re doing something about it. Great work.
Stand tall, aim that big-ass spotlight into the dark corner, and F***ING OWN what you find there.
When you say, “Alright, what’s in here? I got this.” it can change your mentality from shame and avoidance to acceptance and action.
Your next step will be to take this new baseline and improve from there. Don’t compare yourself to the past you thought you were before the spotlight (e.g. I thought my teeth were perfect and healthy, but with the spotlight I discovered new problems).
Instead, set a new baseline based on what the light revealed and grow from there:
“I can’t believe I put on 150 pounds” becomes “Okay, I am 350 pounds today. Next stop is 349.”
“I can’t believe I am $35,000 in credit card debt since I got out of college” becomes “Okay, I am starting at $35,000. I can start paying this down immediately. ”
“I used to be [skinny/debt-free/mentally-healthy] and now I am [negative shame-based identity]” becomes “This is where I am today. What can I do right now?”
Thank you for putting up with my dental horror story, now it’s your turn. Please leave a comment and answer the following questions:
Where is the shadow in your life that you previously didn’t want to shine a spotlight on?
Can you use 20 seconds of courage and then write a nonjudgmental sentence about what you’ve revealed?
What’s one action step you’re taking today to start improvement?
For the record, I ended up having to go back to the dentist two more times after this most recent visit (only one cavity though!), and I’ve already scheduled the next appointment in my calendar for 6 months from now.
(kind of…my mouth is pretty numb at the moment)
Photo: regonold: jail