I’m sitting in my car, sipping a Diet Coke and slowly thumbing keys to laboriously spell out a series of text messages. I am high on 1.5 milligrams of lorazepam, and it will be awhile before I am in any shape to drive. The pizza shop in the same shopping center as my dentist opens in 20 minutes, and I will complete my sobering up process there over an early lunch, enacting my thrice yearly ritual.
More than a decade ago, I went to my dentist to have a filling replaced, and it didn’t go well. By “not well,” I mean that I freaked out, ran to the bathroom, and stayed in there for several minutes sobbing wildly and hyperventilating until I calmed down enough that I could breathe more or less normally. When I emerged with red eyes and a runny nose, my dentist and her staff were extremely kind, ensured that I was alright, and sent me on my way. They had no idea why I was so upset, and I did not explain.
Although I have not been diagnosed with PTSD, I am susceptible to specific triggers that remind me of my many surgeries and painful medical procedures. Lying in the dentist chair, with her poking around in my mouth, I feel intense panic. I never liked dental appointments (who does?) but the stress response worsened with each procedure until I began to have panic attacks.
For years, I tried to tough it out. After all, I’m a long-term cancer survivor—I’m no wimp or whiner! I did not want to admit that I needed help. It makes no sense to me that after the 17 surgeries and all that chemo and years of physical therapy, just going to the dentist triggers a panic attack. I was deeply ashamed.
What changed my mind was one of the contributors to the listserv I belong to for long-term survivors. The phrase she used that really stuck with me is that “there is no extra credit for suffering,” that survivors don’t get any points or rewards or claims of righteous martyrdom when we suffer more than necessary. Nothing good comes from that additional suffering, and quite a bit of harm comes from it—to our bodies, minds, and spirits.
As a professor, the idea of earning extra credit really resonated with me; I want to do a good job managing my pain and various illnesses (that is, I want to earn an A in Health Management) and taking additional medication seems to be a lower quality response, involving less effort and deserving of a lower grade. Certainly, among highly educated people, minimizing medications is respected. I can’t count the number of times I have taken a pill for pain or allergies while at lunch, only to have the person I am with say patronizingly, “I try not to take medications unless it’s absolutely necessary,” implying, of course, that some people too readily reach for medicinal relief. While medications can be misused and abused, they can also be underutilized. And the idea that extra credit is earned by enduring suffering is deeply shaming to those of us who need and seek relief.
This long-term survivor urged me to not be ashamed to take anti-anxiety medication, and further suggested that I listen to something enjoyable on headphones, such as music or an audiobook, while the dentist worked on my teeth. My primary care doctor prescribed me lorazepam to take before dentist appointments or any disagreeable procedures, and I downloaded a wealth of fun audiobooks for further diversion.
The difference is dramatic; instead of holding the chair arms in a death grip, shaking, and feeling the panic bubble up my throat, I essentially float, half-asleep and relaxed while the dentist works. Granted, the process of waiting for the medicine to take effect and wear off wastes half a day, but so what?
And if my choice not to needlessly suffer through my dentist visit results in me earning a B rather than an A in Health Management on my cosmic report card, I’m okay with that.