An Alcoholic Goes to the Dentist

By Dana Bowman 02/21/16

My dentist told me I needed a tooth pulled. He comforts me by telling they'll give me nitrous oxide. "It’s perfect," he said. "It works just like a double martini, to take the edge off.”

An Alcoholic Goes to the Dentist

I am at the dentist. My chair is fully reclined, and as I stare up at a poster of a peaceful forest scene taped to the ceiling, I try to grit my teeth and remind myself that there are worse things. Nuclear war. The upcoming election. 

But I cannot grit my teeth because currently my dentist has both hands in my mouth, and has just explained to me that I need to have a tooth pulled. 

This is the worse thing. This trumps Trump.

My dentist pats me on the shoulder and gives me a way out: “We can always administer Valium before the extraction. You’ll need to have someone drive you home, of course, but you will be just fine. Also, we will give you nitrous oxide during the procedure. It’s perfect. It works just like a double martini, to take the edge off.”

This is tempting, as I am already quite jumpy due to all this poking about in my mouth, but I  blurt, “No! No drugs. No… martinis. Just novocain. Ok?”

My name is Dana, and I’m an alcoholic. And I am now dealing with my first tussle with pain management. 

I knew this was going to happen eventually. I am klutzy and over forty. Thus, I figured I would be looking at a hip replacement soon, which I imagined I could get through with some Advil and lots of heating pads. 

But I hadn’t really considered the dentist thing. 

When I was a kid, I happened upon Marathon Man as the Late Night movie. I cannot tell you why I watched this film. Perhaps I was too frozen in fear to get up and change the channel. And yes, this does date me, as remote controls did not exist yet. The plot featured Dustin Hoffman running around in really short shorts and some guy wielding a dental pick with horrible accuracy. Basically, Marathon Man did for dentists what Jaws did for beach vacations. I do remember cringing a lot and thinking, “One day, I am really going to regret watching this.”

The regret has landed. My dentist is explaining that my troublesome tooth will not be an “easy extraction” (if there is such a thing). In other words, it will be an intense procedure, and she wanted to make sure pain management was involved.

I am stuck. Facing this with only novocain and a prayer is not going to work. 

I am not in the mood for facing anything, so I consider canceling the appointment and hoping that my tooth will just magically heal itself. 

Recovery is really hard, and there is not a lot of room in it for magical thinking. The deal is, recovery generally tries to point me in the right direction, which, this time, is right back to the dental chair.

The first thing I did prior to the fateful appointment was give my dentist a call. It was time to tell her the full story. I reminded myself that she is a medical professional, therefore, she is on my side, and accountability is mandatory. Accountability is also a gift, and my conversation with her was calming and thorough. Together, we tackled my long list of questions. I was heartened to know that the nitrous would be administered in very small doses, and post extraction I would be pumped full of pure oxygen, which sounded very healthy and virtuous. The effects of the nitrous oxide would be completely erased, and voila, I would be free of one tooth and a whole lot of neuroses.

“Basically, it will be like I never had the stuff in me in the first place,” I told my friend Lorie, who was also in recovery. 

“Well, I don’t think it will be like you never had it in you,” Lorie countered. “But I think it’s the best way to go. I can come with you, if you like?” I told her no. I figured I was brave enough to handle the whole thing. 

The appointment started out with me sitting in the chair, staring up at the peaceful forest picture again. I am not sure why the dentists do this, with their posters. It’s not like those trees and streams are going to whisk me away to a zen state while someone is stabbing my gums full of novocain. But I stared and stared at all those pretty trees, and tried to imagine myself walking by the stream, peacefully dragging my dentist, needles, and all those drills right along with me.

I plugged in my headphones and started my new playlist, which I had aptly titled “Stop Freaking Out.” Of course, “Comfortably Numb” pulsed from my ears, and I swear I saw a smirk from the assistant, but it was hard to tell behind all the face masks. The assistant hooked me up to the breathing tube for the nitrous and placed some huge Blu-blocker sunglasses over my eyes, and I hunkered down, waiting for the zone out.

She came by a bit later, and I told her I was certainly feeling it. 

"Really. Because we haven’t put the nitrous on yet. It’s all just oxygen at this point.”

I got quiet after that. And then, the nitrous really did start to do its thing. I gripped down on the chair as if fearful I might float away. And an inner dialogue that could do battle with the script from Dumb and Dumber began:

Sober Me: This is just all wrong. I have not had this feeling for years. And I should definitely not be enjoying it. I mean, I’m going to get high, yes, but I will not like it.

Nitrous Me: I like it. I really, really do. 

Sober Me: Nah. Not so much, actually. She is basically rocking my head back and forth right now trying to pry the tooth out. I can only imagine what’s going on in there. Ok, I don’t want to imagine. Suck it, sober me. BREATHE IN.

Nitrous Me: I’m in charge now. The first thing we’re going to do when we leave here is head to the liquor store. I can just put the bottles in my closet. No one needs to know. 

Sober Me, in a small whisper: Remember how well that worked out for you in the past?

The rest of the hour was fraught with a lot of conversation but not a lot of sense. That was the whole mission of the gas they were pumping, with my permission, into my body. With each measured breath, I did battle with my senses leaving me, and how terribly wrong this all seemed. Finally, I closed my eyes and slid into a trance where I inventoried the boots in my closet, wondering which ones would most effectively store the Stoli. In my dreamlike state, I wandered through aisles of large, shiny liquor stores, where all the bottles glowed amber and ruby. “Drink Me,” they beckoned, like I was Alice in Wonderland. As a kid I had watched this movie, the saccharine, Disney version, with growing dread, as things just got weirder and weirder. Just get home, Alice, I would think. This stuff is nuts. The Cheshire Cat is not to be trusted. No one here is. Wake up.  

The procedure was nearly done and the dentist patted me on the arm. “You ok?” she asked. I nodded. My jaw was aching, and I had just done battle with my soul, but other than that I was fine.

The assistant leaned over and informed me, “No more nitrous. Starting the oxygen now. You breathe deep and in about ten minutes you will feel totally normal.” I nodded. I wanted to say, “Lady. I have breathed oxygen all my life, and I have never felt normal.”

The party was over. And the oxygen truly did wash away all the manic thoughts, all the desires for every mixed drink I had missed in the past years. My head cleared and I stared into the poster on the ceiling. I wondered at it, how quickly I had embraced that insanity, how I had danced down those aisles, filling my cart with morbid glee, like Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Would I be able to forget?

I didn’t forget. Not on the drive home, as I passed my once favorite liquor store, with its pretty bottles. I didn’t forget as I arrived home and curled up under a blanket and an ice pack. My dog came and plopped down on my feet and looked at me, concerned. “I’m fime.” I lisped, through soggy gauze. “But I know thith: I am an alcoholith.” The dog tapped his tail in encouragement, as if to say, “No kidding. Now, take a nap. I’ll be here.”

Sobriety is better. It is better than the weightless numb that the dentist gives you while she tries to wrench a tooth out of your head. The sad truth is this: for an hour of my life, that drug  almost trumped the fact that there some really gruesome surgery was going on in my mouth. And because of that, I certainly know that I am an alcoholic.  And since I am an alcoholic, the rest of the formula remains very simple and very true:

1. If I drink again, it has to be done in secrecy and shame. 

2. Secrecy and shame only leads me to drink more.

3. And then I will die.

As I related all of this to my friend Lorie, she asked, “So, would you do it again? The nitrous?”  

I hesitated. Part of me wanted to answer, “Heck yea! In fact, next time I go in for a cleaning, I’m asking for the stuff!” Since I have outted myself to my dentist, I know this won’t be an option. I took a sip of tea and answered, “I’m not sure. I don’t really know what I would do, next time. But I don’t need to worry about that today. Do I?” She chuckled. We could finish each other’s sentences, sometimes, because recovery works so well in small, memorable sayings. “Do the next right thing, and all,” I added. She told me she was proud of me. And then, she told me to go talk to my husband and my sponsor, and keep walking forward. And make sure to floss.

Dana Bowman is a writer who lives in a sweet small town in the Midwest. She has been published in, The After Party Magazine, and others, and is the proud author at Her book, Bottled: A Mom’s Guide to Early Recovery, published by Central Recovery Press, is now available on and at bookstores.

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