What 22 years of terrible gum disease has taught me about pain, shame and politics | Zoe Williams

When a dentist is holding something sharp in your mouth, you need them to be infinitely accepting of you and your behaviour. A person like that is hard to find

I need to talk about my 22 years of chronic periodontitis and all the wisdom I’ve gained from it. People who’ve never heard of it look nonplussed when you tell them it’s a fancy word for gum disease, while the people who have heard of it, well, that’s because they’ve also got it. We’re more important on this occasion, because our lives are worse.

It’s sometimes genetic but more often because you smoke, and it’s definitely not genetic in my case because my mother last went to the dentist in 1987 and still has more teeth than me. Thirty-four years ago, a dentist said to her: “Next time, try not to be so neurotic,” and she never went back. That’s how good she is at taking criticism. That bit is genetic.

So it must have been the smoking. It was first identified by an oral health professional who said: “You’re 25, you have the bone density of a 45-year-old, and you will not reach that age with teeth if you don’t get it under control.” I gave this my full attention. “Does that mean, if I met a violent death and they were using my dental records to identify my body, they would get my age completely wrong and I might never get justice?” “No,” he said. “They would say: ‘25-year-old female, who was a very heavy smoker without a toothbrush.’” I found him very judgmental. The aspect you’re looking for, when someone’s in your mouth, especially if they’re holding something sharp, is infinite acceptance. The feelings are deeper than fear and pain – your brain is helpfully also splicing in shame, vulnerability and a newly pressing knowledge of death. Plus, it’s mad expensive.

By happy coincidence, my younger sister was studying dentistry at the time; she was on her gum module, she needed guinea pigs for the root planing treatment that I was after, and it would be free. So I went along to her, but I should preface that we didn’t get on that well at the time.

Each tooth has to be rigorously scraped with a series of tools, many of them attached to the mains. “It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “Think of it like scraping the barnacles off the side of a ship.” Well, sure, that wouldn’t hurt at all, unless the ship was your tooth and the sea was your gum, and you had easily as many nerve endings as Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, just a less expressive face.

She eventually agreed to anaesthetise me, but they were obviously saving the tutorial on injections for some other term. By the time I was anywhere near numb, I’d had about nine, and I was very pale, and my heart was pounding, even though I wasn’t scared, just annoyed. The supervisor approached, incredibly fast, or was time moving in and out as I slipped towards unconsciousness? He ended up tipping me almost upside down in the chair because he thought I might faint, and stroking my hand like I was a rabbit who’d had a nasty surprise. The worst bit was, we hadn’t told him we were sisters – she thought that might not be allowed – so I had to fake infinite patience with the student dentist, like a decent person behind a learner driver, when what I wanted to say was: “Did you do that on purpose?” Or: “Why didn’t you tell me you were bad at this?”

Then, when I was in my mid-30s, I met D. By this time, one of my teeth was mobile – such a cheering word applied to any other part of your body, such a death knell for a tooth – and I was pretty accustomed to the awful look on a dentist’s face whenever I opened my mouth. She never gilded the lily, so I still found the experience pretty bracing, but she had a number of very strong views, all of which I agreed with.

It was the middle of the Greek debt crisis, and she’s from Greece. “It is absurd, this line that the Greeks are simply lazier than the Germans.” “Gnnn!” “Per capita productivity is actually higher in Greece.” “Yng!” Turns out the noise I make in affirmation, with my mouth open, is a lot like my polite howl of pain. So it took a couple of conversations to iron that out. Now, if something hurts or I disagree, I raise my hand, and all noises are consensus. It’s like a Momentum meeting. She also has a very strong sense of her own value – “You see, I’m at the top of my field” “Grrr!” – which I find reassuring and admirable.

Lockdown happened, and she got pregnant, then left the practice, which tried to refer me to someone else, and I said they didn’t understand – I needed someone at the top of their field, who thought Yanis Varoufakis was great at dealing with the European council, but problematic as a democratic organiser.

Recently, D resurfaced, and life, certainly as it relates to my face, got good again. I can’t stress this enough: find a dentist whose politics you like, and the fear, pain, shame, vulnerability and inevitability of death don’t seem so important.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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