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To Nitrous or Not To Nitrous

The other day my husband and I were talking about this and he said “So what, you’d refuse painkillers if you had surgery?” I recognized a loaded question I know absolutely nothing about, so I said I’ll cross that bridge when (not if) I come to it.

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By Kristen Rybandt

06/25/14

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I just had time to rethink my whole stance on mind-altering substances while my dentist burned my front teeth with lasers. I’m pretty sure I’ve come around on laughing gas, even though I hung tough this time and know a close friend who had a nitrous problem back in the day. At the time, the thought of her lugging around those big, heavy tanks to get high seemed comical, but now not so much.

I’ve never had nitrous in my life and only had local anesthesia when I had my wisdom teeth removed. Man, I really was up for anything in those days. More likely, it was a complete lack of fear of dental trauma because I hadn’t experienced any yet.

I am still a member of The No Cavity Club, knock on wood. I came of age after fluoride tablets but before every dentist office had those cardboard treasure boxes filled with prizes. My reward for good teeth was a steady stream of Goofus and Gallant strips in the waiting room and sweet freedom from dentophobia. It wasn’t until recently that I began to understand why some friends visit nitrous-friendly pediatric dentists for routine work, and it isn’t just because they too missed out on treasure box prizes.

The whole laser-burning part of my procedure lasted maybe 5 minutes but felt like an hour. I closed my eyes tight and had plenty of time to question if my dentist really was a dentist. Sure, I’d stared at the “diplomas” on his wall for the last 8 years, but how could I be sure he wasn’t some Bond villain turned charlatan? Why did he offer the nitrous so casually and not bother to tell me I would want, no, need it after smelling the pungent smolder of my own teeth?

The reason he was burning my teeth in the first place is because I’m a Grinder. Grinder is a term I imagine dentists use when they get together with other dentists to discuss the big challenges of the day over drinks. “Yep, I had myself a real Grinder this afternoon,” my dentist would say as the other dentist raised her glass and waited intently to hear if I’d taken the laughing gas so half-heartedly offered.

I’d ground significant depth from my two front teeth, and the laser was the first step of a procedure to reinforce them. “Did you know you grind your teeth?” my dentist had asked, which is a little like asking someone if they know they snore. I unclenched my jaw to say “Not really.”

I have tension issues. Sometimes I feel tightly coiled in the shoulder and jaw when I have no reason to be that tense. There’s work stress, sure, plus the usual worries of a working mom and human being above the age of 5. But I run, I write, I eat cookies. I do what I can to naturally take the edge off.

What I don’t do anymore is drink or do drugs. Ever since getting sober, I made the blind decision that I would also refuse prescribed painkillers or mind-altering drugs as long as I possibly can. I’ve heard and choose to believe the old adage that any drug will eventually lead me back to my drug of choice, which is a drink.

The other day my husband and I were talking about this and he said “So what, you’d refuse painkillers if you had surgery?” I recognized a loaded question I know absolutely nothing about, so I said I’ll cross that bridge when (not if) I come to it. I wish I believed this will never be tested, but our bodies are so fragile sometimes, so temporary. I will make sure my doctor knows I’m in recovery and that I put in too much work and time to throw it away unintentionally.

Today, the burning laser already feels far away. It’s like Bond himself burst into the room and flipped the power switch just in time and then ever-so-slowly returned the dental chair to its upright position.

“You were very brave to refuse laughing gas,” he would say with a kind smile as he extended a hand and led me to the treasure box for a prize.

“I guess I was,” I would tell him. “This time.”

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