A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 4 1998 3:30 AM


       Well, the sun has finally come out, and the weekend starts tomorrow, so things aren't quite as bad as they have been. The only thing that is depressing me is my teeth. Anyone who has ever had dental problems will know how bad they are for morale. During the past few weeks I have had two back teeth extracted--one at the bottom and one at the top--and my dentist is in the process of having bridges made to cover the gaps. On Wednesday of next week, the first of these two bridges will be put in place, so that I will be able to chew my turkey at Christmas. But the whole business of going to the dentist gets me down. I belong to that minority of the British population who suffer from "dental phobia," people who are terrified in advance of the pain they expect the dentist to inflict.
       My last dentist, Peter, was called "painless Pete" by his patients because he had never been known to hurt anyone--not even Jerry Hall, who was one of his clients. But I turned out to be the exception. I once lay in the chair watching him come out in beads of sweat while his reputation crumbled away before him as I failed to respond to an anesthetic. He gave me shot after shot of the stuff, but still the pain I felt was acute. In the end, out of compassion, I did my very best to pretend that the pain had gone away, although it hadn't really. Soon afterward Peter retired early from the dental profession and is now running a couple of London restaurants. His successor is a nice man and probably an excellent dentist (one has to believe that one's dentist is excellent), but I don't show so much consideration for his feelings when he hurts me.
       Apparently, a lot of people with "dental phobia" refuse any treatment unless they are made unconscious beforehand. If I don't demand this, it is because, when I was a child, the only general anesthetic used was gas, and I have nightmare memories of it. An anesthetist would place a mask over one's nose and mouth, and one would slowly sink into oblivion. It felt as if one was an animal being put down. On one occasion, when I was 14 or 15 years old, I woke up in the middle of whatever the dentist was doing to me and saw his panicky expression as he slammed the mask back on my face to send me under again. I find it surprising that, according to opinion polls, seven out of 10 people "have no problems whatsoever" about going to the dentist and that, of these, nearly one in two are "perfectly happy" to go.
       In Britain today, three-quarters of the adult population say they would rather have an aching tooth filled than extracted, but until recently this was not so. The British have notoriously bad teeth, and most of them used to assume that they would lose all their teeth by the time the were old. So many decided to get the business over with and have them all removed and replaced by false ones while they were still young. It was even common for people to be given this revolting procedure as a wedding present. Times have changed, but even today a majority of Britons over the age of 65 have no teeth of their own. I suppose that, as I approach my 60s, I should consider myself lucky that so far I have only lost four.

Alexander Chancellor writes "International Papers" for Slate.