October 4, 2002
Rewards

miles to go: 524.75

"Well, what do you know?" says the oral surgeon, glancing over my chart as we're waiting for the novocaine to kick in. "It looks like you and I have the same birthday."

I smile at him from behind the gas mask.  (At least I think I'm smiling: I'm stretching my drug-numbed lips in the appropriate directions, anyway.) "Do you get your birthday presents wrapped in Santa Claus paper, too?" I ask him. This is my standard *witty rejoinder* whenever I encounter a fellow December Baby ... except that I've been sucking on nitrous oxide for the past four and a half minutes, and it comes out more like this: Joo getcher birday presence wrappin San Claus papertoo.

I sound like Sling Blade. Plus I think I'm drooling again.

This is my very first experience with nitrous oxide, and I've got to tell you that so far I'm not all that impressed. All these years I've been led to believe that gas is this giddy, trippy *Fun Ride* ... the ultimate dental high. In fact, I almost turned it down for that very reason, when the surgeon offered it to me a few minutes ago: my days of giddy, trippy *Fun Rides* are suppposed to be a thing of the past, after all. But then the broken molar began to emit a last minute death-shriek -- perhaps it sensed its own impending doom, and wanted to go out in a blaze of glory -- so I allowed the dental assistant to slip the gas mask over my face, and I breathed deeply a bunch of times in a row, the way she demonstrated, and I waited for the warm comforting embrace of chemical bliss to descend ...

... except that nothing happened.

Even now, almost five minutes later, I still don't feel any calmer than I did an hour ago, when David dragged me kicking and screaming into the oral surgery clinic. (Well ... OK. He didn't drag me. He held my hand, really really tight, and sort of pulled me through the doorway.)  Mostly the gas is making me feel unpleasantly jittery now ... like I've just slammed down fourteen cups of Peet's Italian Dark Roast, one right after the other. Plus I am almost painfully alert. I may sound like a complete mental defective when I open my mouth and attempt to string words together, but my brain is operating with alarming clarity. I could probably solve a complex trigonometry problem right now, plus parse a couple of lines of Shakespeare from memory, plus recite all of the Books of The Bible. In order. Backwards. In Pig Latin.

Just not out loud, obviously.

I don't WANT to be painfully alert!  I want to be numb and fuzzy and stoopidly/blissfully/groovily in love with the entire world ... at least for the next ten minutes, until the dead molar is safely excised and my mouth is packed full of nice comforting after-gauze. I don't want to feel anything between now and then: not so much as a poke or a pinch or a "You're probably going to feel a slight tugging sensation here." Or -- if I do happen to feel any of these things -- I don't want to give a damn.

I want my sanctioned high.

Dr. December leans over me, frowning, and peers deeply into the murky recesses of my open mouth. "A little wider," he says, and I obediently drop my jaw to my chest. His dental assistant, who reminds me of Barbie  --  only taller and blonder and more improbably proportioned -- wordlessly hands him The Really Big Pliers.

"You're probably going to feel a slight tugging sensation," he says.

I close my eyes and suck on nitrous oxide for dear life.




For most of my life, going to the dentist has had almost nothing to do with teeth, and almost everything to do with reward.

As a kid, it was all about pencil erasers. Dr. Filion -- how's that for an appropriate name for a family dentist? -- handed out little rubber pencil erasers, shaped like animals, to all of his young patients. He kept the erasers on display in the window of his examination room: neat whimsical rows of red elephants and blue monkeys and yellow giraffes, marching along the windowsill like a miniature circus parade. As I sat there in Dr. Filion's chair, being filled and drilled and flouridated, all I could ever think about were those silly erasers. I knew I wasn't going to be happy until I owned the entire menagerie. (I didn't realize it at the time, but this was probably the beginning of *Collecting Fever* ... a peculiar malady that continues to afflict me well into my forties. When I fall in love with something new, I want one of every flavor/every color/every species. When I was ten, it was rubber animal erasers. These days it's Mystic Spirit CDs, Stephanie Andrews suit jackets and Elizabeth Berg novels.) It really didn't matter what horrific new dental torture Dr. Filion had in store for me when I showed up at his office, four times a year ... as long as I went home with another new eraser at the end of the torture session.

Preferably a BETTER eraser than my little brother went home with.

As a teenager, my reward for enduring my twice-monthly orthodontic appointments was the gentle touch (and the undivided attention) of Dr. Oliver, who looked like Stephen Boyd and smelled like Brylcream and starred in more of my chaste adolescent fantasies than Jonathan Frid, Roddy McDowall and Danny Kent, put together. For Dr. Oliver, I was willing to endure any form of orthodontic torment ... just so long as it was his hairy-knuckled/garlic-scented fingers in my mouth, inflicting the torment. I cried the day my braces finally came off. I told my grandparents that it was because my teeth looked "too big" -- unsheathed from their aluminum casings for the first time in two years, they did seem comically large -- but the real reason I was crying, of course, is that I knew my time with Dr. Oliver was drawing to a close.

His attention had been my reward.

Between adolescence and middle-age, there were a couple of decades of no dentist appointments at all. Marriage, pregnancy, children, poverty: all seemed to get in the way of regular dental attention. It wasn't until my late thirties, when my molars (and my marriage) were crumbling to pieces that I started going to see the dentist again. Because I'd waited so long -- because everything was already so far gone by that point -- my appointments were rarely routine: these were grim, serious, prolonged painfests, filled with blood and discomfort and the high-pitched screeeeeeeeeeeeeeek of the electric drill. But that was OK, because when the appointment was over I was sent home with Groovy Meds, which -- truth be told -- I liked even more than I liked alcohol. They filled me with a mellow creative buzz that I loved, plus there was no hangover afterwards. My reward quickly became that magic moment at the very end of the appointment when the dental drill disappeared ...

... and the prescription pad appeared.




Five minutes later, it's over.

"That's it," says Dr. December. "We're finished." He drops The Really Big Pliers onto the equipment tray with a 'thunk,' and he strips off his rubber gloves and stuffs them into the wastebasket, and he walks out the door without a backward glance.

What he lacks in personality, I guess, he makes up for in lack of personality.

As I pull the gas mask from my face and sit up in the chair, pulling myself together, Dental Assistant Barbie begins to run down the list of post-extraction instructions. Keep the gauze in place with firm, constant biting pressure for one full hour. Avoid rigorous spitting or rinsing for three days. No hot food or liquids for the next 72 hours, no granular foods, no acidic foods, no chewing tobacco. Rinse with warm salt water, twice a day. Take medication with food or milk. "Do you have ibuprofen at home?" she asks me ... and this is the moment when I understand that there won't be any good drugs coming home with me this morning. For a few fleeting seconds I consider asking anyway: maybe a few Vicodin or Percocet, just to get me through the hours after the novocaine wears off? Maybe some nice harmless Tylenol 3's, in case I have trouble sleeping tonight? Maybe some prescription-strength Motrin, if nothing else?  I'm sure that if I'm earnest enough and articulate enough and I ask in a manner that doesn't scream Addict! Addict! Addict!, I could talk them into pulling out the prescription pad and ordering me some Groovy Meds.

But I don't. "Yes, we have ibuprofen at home," I tell Dental Assistant Barbie.

I'm not being brave. I'm being realistic. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be fine with OTC's, for one thing. It's not like I've just had a quadruple root canal, without benefit of anesthesia: I had one crummy little tooth pulled. It's going to hurt for a while, especially once the novocaine wears off -- in fact, I'll bet that the spot where the novocaine needle went in is where it's going to hurt the most -- but we're not talking unmanageable pain. This is a highly successful oral surgery clinic. They treat 43,897,621 patients a day here. I doubt that they could get away with recommending over-the-counter ibuprofen if it didn't work.

For another thing ... I'm thinking that I just don't want to tempt fate.

It's not that I don't trust myself. I'm reasonably certain that I can handle a controlled amount of prescription narcotic and not feel tempted to run right out and swan-dive into a box of Mountain Chablis. Earlier in my recovery, I might have worried about just such a scenario: I remember freaking out when a doctor prescribed cough syrup with codeine for my bronchitis, a couple of years back. But I've been sober long enough now -- I've acquired enough wisdom about my disease, and about the specific triggers that could derail me if I'm not careful -- to know that I would be just fine with two or three days' worth of Groovy Meds.

Still ... I think I'm going to skip it this time.

It's like the KFC Honey BBQ Wings last week. For two whole years I've deprived myself of my very most favorite food on the planet: while I was trying to lose weight for our wedding, initially, and then because David and I have decided to try and permanently avoid fast food as much as possible, just on general principle. But then last week I impulsively stopped at KFC on the way home from work and bought myself an eight-piece Meal Deal ... mainly because I had a coupon, and because I was too lazy to cook myself a 'real' dinner, and because the incessant TV commercials had finally worn me down. I ate all eight chicken wings -- I stripped them right down to the bone, like Nibbler on 'Futurama' -- in just under two minutes, and of course it was every bit as delicious and incredible and addictive as I remembered. Maybe more so, because it had been so long since I'd indulged. But then I just sat there for the rest of the evening, and all I could think about were KFC Honey BBQ Wings. While I rinsed out my bike shorts and packed my trail bag for morning ... I was thinking about KFC Honey BBQ Wings. While David and I lay in bed, watching "John Doe" and holding feet ... I was thinking about KFC Honey BBQ Wings. While David slept the sleep of the blameless, in the deep dark of night ... I was standing in the kitchen, furtively licking leftover KFC Honey BBQ sauce off the discarded wax paper.

I don't want to be that way, about anything: not about food, not about alcohol, not about Elizabeth Berg novels ... not about prescription medication.

By the time David picks me up at the clinic, fifteen minutes later, the nitrous oxide has worn off and the world is skewing normal again. (Next time: I'm going to skip the gas and stick with the headphones.) "How are you feeling?" he asks me, leading me outside to the Subaru and tenderly helping me into the front seat. 

The truth is that I feel perfectly fine. My mouth is already starting to ache, a little -- I want to get home as soon as possible and start taking those mega-doses of Motrin -- but otherwise I'm OK.

"I'm just glad it's over," I tell him.

I know that if the pain does become unmanageable later, I can always call the clinic and tell them the truth: that I'm experiencing more discomfort than I had expected ... that I would appreciate a prescription for something with more oomph ... that I'm a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, so if I try calling them again in three days for a refill ("My dog ate my codeine") they should hang up on me, then and there. But in the meantime I'm OK. It's over. I survived. Problem solved. My "reward" is knowing that my stoopid, infected, sleep-interrupting, life-disrupting broken molar has been forever silenced ... and that's good enough for me.

Although I wouldn't say *no* to a rubber animal eraser.



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