If you wanted to scare me as a child, all you had to do was tell me that I had to go to the dentist. That was enough to give me more nightmares than a double-feature horror film, along with bouts of dread and anxiety.
I think the only thing that frightened me more was spiders. But in retrospect, the spider experience wasn’t as bad, because it was neither anticipated nor prolonged. I’d see a spider, I’d scream, someone would kill it, the end. And you didn’t make an appointment to meet a spider. It was an unpredictable, random act. You never knew when you were going to see another one, and I wasn’t that loony that I spent all of my time worrying about spider encounters.
No, the dentist was an entirely different story. I had to go every six months, so that appointment was always looming in my subconscious, and the closer I got to the appointment date, the more anxious I became—until the night before, when I would lie awake in a cold sweat, thinking about picks and drills and that big old leather chair—and my torturer, Dr. Louis Goulston.
I felt I was correct in my assessment of his character, because the first half of his last name was pronounced “Ghoul.” To me, he was a ghoul. He had all these painful devices and he was more than willing to use them all on me.
I had bad teeth. “Soft teeth,” I remember him telling my mother. This meant that I got a lot of cavities. Every time I went to him, another tooth had to be filled; sometimes, more than one. I have a weird cousin who never even had one cavity growing up. Since I’d always thought there was something wrong with her, her lack of cavities confirmed my suspicions.
Let’s face it; dentist offices were scary in those days. Now, they’re brightly decorated and cool, with music in the background, laughing gas if you need it, smiling faces all around. No, it was a grim business back then.
The Ghoul did not have a partner, or practice with a dental group, which could have made me feel slightly better. Perhaps other dentists and patients and assistants running around would have distracted me. His lonely little office was on the second floor of an old building in East Boston, with his name stenciled in flaking gold letters on the window. There was a small waiting room, where I would sit with my mother and pretend to read the dog-eared copies of Highlights for Children while I quaked inside as I stole furtive glances at The Door.
The Ghoul performed his dastardly deeds behind this huge old door. If I didn’t hear anything, all was well, for the moment. But inevitably, I’d hear muffled voices that became louder as his last victim came closer and closer to freedom. When that doorknob turned, my heart dropped to my shoes. That meant it was my turn.
Back then, dentists didn’t wear scrubs, which are colorful and casual. The Ghoul wore a white doctor’s coat, and his assistant, who also happened to be his wife, wore a nurse’s uniform. So right off the bat, it made things appear more serious. Like you were already in trouble before you even got in his chair.
The chair was another problem. It was a huge, black leather deal with all kinds of contraptions attached to it, and looked like something Dr. Frankenstein would strap you into if he managed to drag you to his lab. Nothing pleasant could possibly happen in that chair.
As The Ghoul sterilized his instruments of torture, my mother would exchange small talk with Mrs. Goulston who was actually a very sweet lady. But she was married to The Ghoul, so as far I was concerned, she was unacceptable. How can you live with this man? I would think, as she prattled on about her nephew’s wedding and the outfit her sister-in-law wore for the special event.
I was ultimately summoned to the chair. And the painful picking and poking would begin, followed by exclamations of disgust: “Another cavity!” “You’re not brushing enough!” “Stop eating so much candy!” “Your teeth are terrible!”
And out would come that drill. God, I hated it; from the sound—like a swarm of angry bees—to the actual drilling, which hurt terribly. The instrument would get hot or it would hit a nerve. I’d yelp and squirm, which would elicit more anger from The Ghoul. I would say Hail Marys over and over again in my mind, and when that didn’t help, I’d call out the big guns with the Lord’s Prayer. The whole ordeal seemed to go on forever.
Finally, it would be over. I’d jump out of that chair as fast as I could, pulling on my coat and inching towards the door as my mother made my next appointment. Six whole months, I would think. No need to start getting nervous for a while.
It’s interesting that for something that made me so hysterical, I don’t recall when I eventually switched dentists, who that dentist was, and when I actually outgrew my dentophobia. All I know is that I have no problem whatsoever going to the dentist now. I even had a root canal last month, and it was just fine.
The only fear and anxiety I experience now is when I get the bill.