Monday, November 23, 2009

Sisyphus in the dentist's chair

Running out the door to an appointment at the dentist's office this morning, I grabbed a paperback small enough to stuff in the back pocket of my jeans - a copy of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, which I first read in my late teens. In the dentist's waiting room, I reflected on the Greek story that Camus borrowed to define his sense of the "absurd" as the field in which we are required to discover a purpose strong enough to live for. Sisyphus, an otherwise obscure figure who may have been a hero or a highwayman (or both) was punished by the gods (for an offence whose nature is also disputed) by being compelled to push a huge boulder to the top of a mountain. Every time he reaches the top, the rock rollls back down to the bottom and Sisyphus is required to start all over again.

I could feel the soft bulge of The Myth of Sisyphus in my back pocket, as I settled into the dentist's chair. I was scheduled for a long session: root canal work, followed by clinical crown lengthening, which would involve peeling back the tissue around the stump of a tooth from which I had recently lost a crown, to provide more structure for a new crown to be set. I have been going to the same dentist for over 15 years. When I first came in for a root canal and declined all anesthetics, she was incredulous. "Just let me know when you change your mind," she responded. At the end of that surgery, I opened my eyes to find several of the staff gathered in close."They want to know how you do that," said the dentist. "Oh, while you were doing your thing I was an African lion sunning himself in the savannah. I was aware of you fleetingly, as an irritating long-beaked bird that was picking my teeth. Nothing worth any real attention."

I survived further root canals and oral surgery in the same way, by switching my attention to a separate reality. At the start of a long and messy tooth extraction, I transferred my attention to the pink sand of Bermuda, and to swimming in the warm waters of a pirate cay. When the tooth shattered and a different dentist started digging out the fragments, I was unable to shut out the pain. My meditation became different. I made myself go into the pain, into its raw savage furnace, and find some form of strength there to get me through, again without any type of anesthetic.

When I was deathly ill as a child, coughing into my pillow at night so as not to disturb my mother, I learned to shift my focus in these and other ways in order to survive extremes of pain. This was a survival mechanism. It was also, perhaps, something that was bred into me, as a Scots-Australian from a military family, in which men, by and large, did not complain about pain.
Yet long before today I had come to recognize that ignoring the complaints of the body isn't necessarily very smart, or very evolved. The body has its needs, one of which is to have its distress signals heard before problems get serious.

At 9:45 AM today, my regular dentist came in to the place of pain with her regular cheery greeting and family update. Then she said (knowing me well by now), "No Novocaine, right?"
"No Novocaine," I confirmed. This time, she did not point out that I could always change my mind.

The work began. The dentist explained that it might be hard to find enough space on the stump of my broken tooth for the clamp she needed to apply. "I'm afraid you won't enjoy it too much if I have to clamp the gums." That's exactly what she had to do. I felt exquisite pain as the sharp metal cut into my gums. I began to ready my mind to travel somewhere away from here, perhaps this time to the city of Delft, as it was in the time of Vermeer, the master of light whose paintings had delighted me at the Met in New York on Sunday. Yet another image came first. I saw a picador in a bull-ring, tormenting a strong but weary bull by jabbing him again and again, drawing blood. I recognized myself in this scene, as both characters in the ring.
As a counterpoint to the stabbing pain of the clamp, I again felt the soft pressure of the pocket book under my rear end. I could not escape the message coming to me both from my body's protest, from my internal imagery and from the ancient myth. The tragedy of Sisyphus is that he is a man condemned (perhaps by the gods he has made for himself) to go on repeating an experience of pain and hard labor from which he learns and gains nothing. His pain does not rise to the level of suffering, which we might define as pain that provides access to meaning. The pain of Sisyphus is most terrible because it is dumb repetition, without meaning. I was now obliged to ask myself: What do I have to learn, or gain, by putting myself through anoher hour of excruciating pain in a dentist's chair simply because in my bull-headed (or rather picador-capped) way, I've decided I won't take pain-killers?
With my mouth full of stuff, I tried to make a sound that might be heard as distress. The dentist and her assistant removed enough equipment for me to say, "I'll try the Novocaine. On condition you give me the smallest dose and only apply it to the immediate area you're working on."

It was a done deal. Apart from some pain at the beginning and the end of the several procedures, I experienced only mild discomfort over the next hour. I reached for a hand-mirror, to check that all the blood had been wiped from my face. "It wouln't be much of an ad for the dentistry," I joked to the assistant, "If I walk out looking like I've been hammered in an alley." The frame of the mirror was shaped like a tooth, one of those cute props you find in dental offices. I realized that today, I had been brought in front of a life mirror. In it I found Sisyphus in a dentist's chair. In that moment of self-recognition, the Sisyphus in me resigned from his duties to his old gods.


Wanda Burch said...

I admire the strength of your imagery - my imagery-courage has never extended to the dentist's office, although I must admit I have teeth that have never included that experience more than once or twice in my life. In one of those - the surgical extraction of wisdom teeth, that in my case, had too much room to grow and had grown sideways and down instead of up. Now what kind of message was that? But your comment about the "ad" for dentistry took me back to that experience because at the end of the teeth extraction the dentist/surgeon and his assistant told me they were all done - at least I thought they told me. They actually told each other not realizing I was misunderstanding, sooo... I stood up and walked out the door while they stood with their backs to me conferring on something. I saw the look of horror on my father's face - and on everyone else's - as I stumbled into the waiting room. My face, blouse, and the "bib" that was still around my neck, were covered with blobs of blood. I'm surprised half the waiting room did not get up and run. My father mumbled something to the receptionist and took me out a side door to the car where he planted me while he paid for the teeth.

In the same way I admire your imagninal excursions, I admired my son's description of how he "got through" the tedious days of standing for hours as a Coast Guard Honor Guardsman, staring straight ahead and not moving. He told me, when I asked how he did that, that he had practiced in guard bootcamp by standing in the hallway and staring just inches away into the small beads of a red painted cinder-block. He imagined the crevices opening up into streets into a magical city which he could people with adventures and exotic scenes. He brought those back into his imagination as he stood in the hot Washington sun.

Remembering his story, I traveled through the holes in the sound insulated ceiling in a gynecologist office in a painful exam just months after my diagnosis of breast cancer. The chemo treatments had sent my immune system into disorganized turmoil and an exam had identified possible cancer cells - the exam was required to be done with no anesthesia. The exercise of moving through the ceiling into a city peopled with adventure removed my body from the pain. And my doctor - after the exam - asked what I did and where I "went." She said my body did not even "tense," which is a usual body response to pain. The imagination and dreaming are two of our greatest gifts.

Robert Moss said...

Hi Wanda - Thanks for sharing these rich experiences of the use of imagination in support of healing and higher functioning, your own and your son's. Healthcare (including dentistry!) would be a richer and happier experience for all if professionals were prepped not only to indulge but to actively encourage the imagination of patients. Through the practice of imagination, we can accomplish wonders in pain management (though my confessional from the dentist's chair suggests there are healthy limits to that). We can also SUPPORT medical procedures, when necessary, to work with maximum ease and minimum side-effects, as your own account of concocting "healing cocktails" in your book ("She Who Dreams") amply illustrates.

Savannah said...

I'm not sure which impresses me more... your powers of imagination, or the willingness to redefine a long standing relationship to the experience of pain on the spur of the moment. As long as we're doing the confessional thing, I may as well admit that when someone tells me they decline dental aneasthetic I am in absolute awe AND silently wonder... but why? Outside of the dental office I am willing to be more adventurous; a few years ago I managed to avoid a hospital admission for appendicitis through active imagination (shored up by sheer stubborn effort of will...). Reading your book has been so helpful also Wanda!

Robert Moss said...

Hi Savannah - I'm intrigued by the notion that my body, long accustomed to my way of muting or ignoring its distress signals, may have helped to arrange a mythic prompt today that succeeded in getting my mind's attentioo. Though it's my habit to take a book with me to any appointment where I may have to wait, I haven't stuffed a book in my hip pocket since I was a teen - and I have certainly NEVER previously sat in a dentist's chair with a book so nearly grafted to my physical anatomy.

I continue to believe that through the practice of imagination, we can accomplish much more in the area of pain management that the pill-pushers would have us believe. Nonetheless, there are limits. Part of effective self-definition, indeed, may consist of recognizing and setting the right limits, or boundaries. That's in the etymology of "define". The Latin "definire" means both to explain, to determine - and, most literally, to set limits.

Worldbridger said...

What a fascinating experience. For many years I also had dentistry without freezing, but it was because of a phobia I had regarding the injection itself which for me was an obstacle worse than the pain.

Basically I was saying give me pain, because I am more terrified of the needle than the pain. Is that weird or what?

However, several years ago I found a dentist who was an absolute magician with a needle and though I still hyperventilate at the thought, I am now able to have painless dentistry, which is wonderful.

So for me, it was kind of the other way round - my imagination would go out of control at the very thought of being pierced by a tiny little needle - causing my body to feel like it was going to die.

I am always amazed at people who take up dentistry, they are like gods to me. I do not know how they cope with the extremes of emotion day after day.

Anyway, great post, something to get your teeth into.

Robert Moss said...

Dentists are "like gods"? Good Lord, I don't think I'll pass that opinion on to my dentist or even my favorite dental assistant, though they are indeed very good at what they do. Dental humor, in my experience, is rather far from divine, and best appreciated when you are on the right side of the drill.

Anonymous said...

Oh Robert, I hope you are recovering okay...I also tried mental imagery at the dentist this summer and seemed to do okay for a while...but finally had to raise a hand for numbing assistance...
Sending you good wishes, quick recovery, and prayers,

Robert Moss said...

I'm feeling top-notch, Margie, thanks for your good wishes. I often say that I'll put up with just about anything if it has story value, and I think there's a great story in this.

fran said...

Robert, I've always been impressed by the way that you took those unpleasant events of your childhood illness and turned them into positive things. But, having gone through quite a number of 'dental events' myself and coming from a family with a 'just endure the pain' attitude, I think I am even more impressed with your story today. It is good to be reminded that there is virtue in going beyond our victories, bravo!

Robert Moss said...

Thanks, Fran. Today was very strong confirmation for me that we need to recognize, every day, that we are living certain stories - and then identify what they are and decide whether it's time to choose a different story. I have studied and taught mythic tales since I was a very young lecturer in ancient history, but I don't think I was ever fully conscious until today that the myth of Sisyphus might have been one of the stories I was living. It was a story I choose to live, and was not the story of Sisyphus for many decades - until I decided to bind myself to a pattern of repetitive pain that still required guts and stamina, but no longer served any real purpose.

Robyn said...

Robert, what a story! I have found dental pain to be particularly "exquisite" :-)and rely on both meditation and basic anaesthetic when in the chair.

As your story unfolded, I saw your Sisyphus rock turn into an easy rolling ball of wisdom, yielding kindness to yourself.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

As a teen the dentists was definitely a scary place, but not so much anymore. While I wouldn't forgo the wonders of modern medicine for pain relief if undergoing a root canal or some other operation, I do use a relaxation exercise to negate any lingering anxieties. Now when I go in for my twice yearly cleanings, it is a much more pleasant experience: having bathed myself in golden light, I am then free to wonder the expanses of the imagination.

Robert Moss said...

Robyn, I love your image of the gently rolling "wisdom ball".

Justin, your typo "free to wonder" is one of those sublime ones we never want to correct.

Both of you seem to have hit on the right mix between creative visualization and the comforts of the modern pharmacy.

Jane Carleton said...

Hi Robert,

What a beautiful story of courage, seen in your ability to endure pain when appropriate and in your reassessment of your decision to forgo pharmaceuticals with the help of the guidance found in your imaginal journey, and to share it with us here. This is a moving example of the ability we all have to grow in unexpected places and circumstances. We go about our lives living our stories, and suddenly more awareness arrives that we can catch if we allow ourselves to be available for the message.

I remember well the many weeks I experienced the daily painful treatments for my severe burns when I was a teen. Even with morphine, I had to journey into and through the pain, and now I have a wisdom about it that I would not have otherwise. I remember focusing up at the ceiling in the hospital as the doctors and nurses worked on me. I journeyed too into the physical cracks I saw up there and off to worlds removed from the pain. But I also journeyed into the hearts of my caregivers and saw their compassion and the suffering they felt for me. I asked for a radio early on so I could travel into these other realms on the wings of music I loved. And I remember someone tacked up a beautiful Hawaiian image for me to look at up there on the ceiling, a gift I was deeply moved by.

Thanks for your story!

Patricia said...

Robert I am amazed by your ability to over ride pain through imagination, but not surprised. Kind of cool how you listened to the pressure of the book, went to the myth and adjusted a hard and true approach. In Norway they never used any kind of drugs for fillings. When I moved to the states I had to reassure them I didn't need anything. Of course I wasn't so brave or imaginative when it was time to take my wisdom teeth out.

Robert Moss said...

Jane E - Your brave and moving experience of surviving those childhood burns is an inspiring example of how we can claim gifts through our wounds. It's grand that you had someone sensitive enough in that environment to give you something better to look at than the medical charts and pathology pix that are so often the only decoration in treatment rooms. Whenever I can, I tell people in medical centers and dental offices to consider putting attractive landscapes on the walls that patients can eneter in their imaginations.

Robert Moss said...

Patty - Thanks for your cheer. As I said in my confessional piece about Monday's experience, there comes a time when we are required to review the stories we are living and see if they need to be edited or changed. One of the conditions for surviving my unusual childhood - constantly beleaguered by life-threatening illness from the age of 3 to 11 - was to develop a very high tolerance for pain, and to shift my awareness elsewhere when the pain insisted on getting my attention. Now I have come to appreciate that enduring pain just for the sake of endurance isn't necessarily the way we want to live a whole life.

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I'm so delighted by your post about the Myth of Sisyphus and your latest experience at the dentist's office! I like the piercing imagery, the dental pain story and the choice to subdue pain or distress. Since today is my son's dental extraction, I'm aware that there's a hint of fear in his face. Three hours later in the dentist's chair, I'm sure my son will remember what I told him. There's nothing for him to fear because he will be taken good care of by the best Hattiesburg, MS dentist. Thanks for the interesting post, Robert! It's full of wisdom!