April 29, 2018

My oldest son Kiefer just had a tooth pulled. For your average kid, Getting A Tooth Pulled means going into the dentist’s office, getting some numbing cream spread around the tooth, getting a shot of Novocaine, and getting the tooth pulled. Bada bing, bada boom. Not fun, but not terrible either. But for this thirteen year old, there’s one teeny tiny little word in that description that turns the whole thing into a massively horrifying ordeal, and that word is SHOT.

Nobody likes shots, but Kiefer’s so good at not liking them, he’s like a professional shot-hater. It’s not even about the pain, because his pain tolerance is usually pretty high. When he encounters sudden, unexpected pain from any source other than a needle, he handles it like a freaking champ. Recently an unseen curb in a parking lot sent him sprawling across the asphalt, a maneuver that shredded up his leg and elbow in an impressively disgusting way, and he didn’t shed a tear. Foss, my five-year-old who witnessed the incident, spent the next ten minutes weeping on his behalf, but Kiefer sat stoically in the car and gave the appearance of being in no pain whatsoever.

But. When pain comes in the form of a shot — especially a shot that he knows is coming — he becomes a different person. Knowing it’s coming consumes his thoughts and takes all the mettle out of him. Have you watched A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix? There’s a line in the theme song that says “This show will wreck your evening, your whole life, and your day.” Change “show” to “shot” and you’ve got the theme song to Kiefer’s nightmares.

He’s borderline phobic about this, which means logic becomes useless for this usually very logical kid. Beforehand, while I was happily explaining to him that getting a tooth pulled is just not that big of a deal (“I’ve had dozens of teeth pulled! And I was loaded up with Novocaine every time! Needles needles shots and needles!”), he was becoming increasingly anxious. Finally, he said “I know shots don’t bother you. But just imagine that someone was going to put a spider in your mouth instead of a shot.” Sheesh, that kid has a way of making me see his point. Needles aren’t my fear, but spiders ARE.

With that vivid (and terrifying) picture in my mind, I agreed to let him have laughing gas. I had initially told him to just man up and forget the gas (it came out a little nicer than that). But then I figured that if for some horrifying reason the day ever came when a person was required to put a spider in my mouth, the polite thing for that person to do would be to at least give me a shot or two of hard liquor first, and I decided that laughing gas was an age-appropriate equivalent. So they gave him the gas, and waited for it to do its thing.

He claimed he couldn’t feel it doing anything at all, but at some point, whether he realized it or not, the laughing gas took effect, because he later told me that he felt like his chair was flying, and that all the voices around him sounded like they were being mixed by a DJ. And as he swirled around the room in his chair, listening to DJ Dentist and the Hip Hop Hygienist, some kind of paranoia must have also set in, so that when the dentist made a slow, gentle movement towards him with the little water-sprayer-thing, Kiefer lunged backwards and brought his knee up as if to ward off an attack. Later on, he told me that he thought the dentist was coming at him with an X-Acto knife. Like dentists do.

For the rest of the appointment, Kiefer continued to halfheartedly bat away the hands of both DJ Dentist and the Hip Hop Hygienist every time they got close to him, and they continued to patiently and respectfully explain to him that it is rather difficult to extract a tooth from a tightly closed mouth. I started to feel annoyed at his recalcitrance a few times, but then I pictured someone trying to put a spider in my mouth. I pictured lying back in a chair, raised up from the ground, bright lights in my eyes, surrounded by people who were calmly saying “open your mouth, this is no big deal, we’re just going to put a spider in here real quick, just relax,” and it made me realize the strength of will it was going to take Kiefer to choose to open his mouth and let the work begin.

Once, when Kiefer was four years old, he got a gash on the back of his head that took us to the emergency room, where a weary-looking doctor simply COULDN’T EVEN with one more squirrely kid that day. It was late in the afternoon, and presumably he’d been patching up stressed-out folks for many hours at that point, so one can hardly hold it against him, but when the time came to start patching up Kiefer, Kiefer lost his ever-loving mind. The doctor said something along the lines of “We’ll just give him a few numbing shots on the back of his head before we start” and Kiefer decided that NO. He became so belligerent that the doctor glared at us and demanded that we please calm him down. Ohhhhhh, you want him calm? Silly us. We thought you wanted him to be kickboxing his way around the exam room while you attempted to staple the back of his bloody head. It was all horribly stressful and unpleasant, and I really can’t say whether it became better or worse once the doctor and the nurse wrapped Kiefer up, mummy-style, in a sheet just to keep him from throwing punches.

At the time, I was extremely annoyed. Annoyed at the unsympathetic doctor, yes, but especially annoyed at Kiefer for what I saw as naughtiness, and annoyed at myself for all the ways I’d obviously failed as a mother.

But earlier this year, Kiefer once more received an injury to the head that took him to the urgent care for staples, and this time he threw no punches. He didn’t kickbox or scream or freak out in any external way. What he did was become incredibly, almost alarmingly silent. He sat in the waiting room, and then in the exam room, in total silence. The doctor did his thing, and Kiefer maintained his monastic silence. By the end of the appointment, when the doctor was telling us to come back for a follow-up, he looked at Kiefer and said, not unkindly, “Maybe next time you’ll actually talk to me, huh?”

I suppose total, almost catatonic silence during a procedure on one’s head is to be preferred to out-of-control screaming chaos. It’s an act of will, anyway, just like opening one’s mouth to welcome needles (or spiders). Back when he was four, it was hard to sort out what was real from what was fake, whether tears were genuine or manipulative, whether tantrums came from actual anxiety or immature willfulness. When he was four, he wasn’t able to calmly say “Mom, imagine spiders in your mouth” in order to help me understand how he was feeling. At that time, he reacted in the only way he felt capable of, but unfortunately for him, that happened to be the same way he reacted when, say, he didn’t get a toy he wanted at Target, so I guess we can’t be blamed for not being able to tell the difference.

While Kiefer now has an extensive (and surprisingly eloquent/creepy) vocabulary at his disposal, I also have a toddler who is still very incapable of making himself understood, resulting in no small number of tantrums. My toddler’s anxieties are different, as evidenced by the fact that he also went to urgent care for head staples a few months ago (are you feeling concerned about the amount of head-gashing going on over here? #allboys) and he didn’t make a peep of sadness the whole time. He practically seemed like he was enjoying himself, the little weirdo. But he screams and weeps and gnashes his teeth about plenty of other things, and someday I’m sure I’ll look back on those things and know which stemmed primarily from willfulness (most of them), and which came from a place of actual anxiety (liiiiiike, maybe when he screams because we ask him to share, it’s because he actually has a legitimate phobia of being robbed….?).

Experience has given Kiefer more self-control and the ability to speak logically about his illogical feelings, but experience has not taken those feelings away. Life sometimes sends spiders my way, and it certainly won’t let him off the hook from occasionally getting shots. There’s a camaraderie in knowing we both feel anxious about certain things, even if the objects of our anxieties are different. But instead of affirming each other in our fears, we ought to remind each other that needles and spiders aren’t the masters of us. Kiefer’s about to get more practice at this, his favorite of all life lessons (<– sarcasm), because to the delight of all (<– sarcasm again), he has to have a follow-up appointment at the dentist’s office next week, and needles will be involved once more. It’ll be rough, but he’ll get through it. And hopefully this time, as he’s floating around, high on nitrous oxide, at the very least he won’t think that DJ Dentist and the Hip Hop Hygienist are trying to knife him.

DJ Dentist and the Hip Hop Hygienist

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