When the dentist texts me to say I'm due a check up, my first response, being the dental coward I am, is to ignore it for six months. When they text again, I force myself to call back and ask if I can "reluctantly" book an appointment. The sweet receptionist usually humours me with a laugh.
The reason for my reluctance has a large part to do with the fact that my dentist has the following annotation on my file: "Gagger". (Stop sniggering at the back.) Since I can remember, dentists digging around in the back of my mouth have always provoked an involuntary response from my gag reflex. This sees me retching and spluttering and generally making the appointments a drain for everyone involved. For me there is the obvious physical discomfort but also the embarrassment of being such a wuss in my late 30s. And for the dentists there may be some professional dissatisfaction at not being able to provide me with as smooth an experience as possible.
So I was pleased to receive a call from the receptionist this week saying my dentist was excited to talk to me about a new technique he'd learned at a conference to help "gaggers" when I was next in. Conveniently, this was only a few days later when I was due for a filling in one of my back molars, prime gag territory. The dentist started telling me about how it could be related to the flap of skin that links your tongue to the base of your mouth and how some people are "tongue tied", which means their tongues have overly restricted movement. Part of the tongue's job is to protect the throat from swallowing anything it shouldn't and the theory goes that tongue tied people can't protect their throats with their tongues and so use gagging as a defence mechanism instead. The dentist poked around in my mouth and got me to show I had free movement of my tongue and was surprised I showed no signs of gagging.
He then proceeded to attach a clip to my back tooth and then a rubber sheet covering my tongue and throat to stop me ingesting the amalgam from the filling. He then went on to perform the dental work, which was the longest procedure I could remember – at least 20 minutes of constant work with drills, picks, suction tubes, glowing heaters that I presume were drying the filling "cement". By comparison it only took around a minute to remove a wisdom tooth a few months ago.
Afterwards the dentist was dumbfounded that there'd been no retching. In years past I would have flipped out in the chair or tried to bite his hand off if he'd done something like this. I almost expected him to say I'd been a "very brave boy" and give me a sticker like I was a six-year-old again.
At this point I mentioned that I'd been meditating for three years and that perhaps that had helped. He jumped on this and started talking about how he had read that meditation works on decreasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the the "fight or flight" response, and instead activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the so called "rest and digest" system. I agreed that this was my understanding and he said he'd tried using meditation apps but that they just hadn't stuck. I passed him my business card. "It's a sign," he said and stowed the card away safely.