Bless You: finding the right words for fear

We need a new language to discuss fear.  This became abundantly clear to me yesterday when I visited a new dentist’s office.  I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but this was the very first time I made a dental hygienist cry.

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For the record, I didn’t raise my voice.  I wasn’t mean.

I figured there was no benefit in acting like something didn’t exist, so when the New Patient Questionnaire asked if I was afraid of visiting the dentist, I didn’t lie.  It also asked me what my overall dental goals were and I said: health.  I used short, one-word responses — which, as you all know, is hard for me.  I explained that I was prone to panic.  But I ask you who, when visiting a dentist, isn’t just a little panicked? I’m sure I’m not the first to show hesitation.

I’m panicked by a lot of things: shopping carts during flu season, monkeys, schedule changes, being far away from an exit, hauling horses on highways, the word “torturous,” (this is not an exhaustive list).  And for all the hours I’ve wasted acting like I’m fine, I’ve come to the realization that it saves everyone a lot of time if I’m just direct.

“Kim, would you like me to pick you up?
“Can I take my own car?
“No.”
“Then, I’m not going.”

The visit was a mild as far as dental visits go, just an evaluation and x rays, but it was obvious that everyone had picked up on the note of panic in my questionnaire. The dentist kept suggesting nitrous when it came time for a filling, “To take the edge off.” Which is all fine and good for people who don’t panic harder when they’re relaxed (points to self, you should see me on vacations, it’s awful).  The hygienist kept referencing this “torturous” moment that would be coming at some point in the evaluation when she would have no choice but to oversee the “torturous” x rays.  “It’s only every three years,” she said. Repeatedly.

Let it be noted that I was never once on the verge of a panic attack.  But no one in the office would have known that because they didn’t ask me.  They talked about fears a lot.  They talked about panic a lot.  They talked about how I was probably dreading a lot of the procedures, a lot.  But they never actually spoke to me about what I was feeling. I was, shockingly, fine.

But I had a little inner battle at the end of the visit, after we’d schedule the fillings and the cleanings.  I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t mention that the staff’s fear of my panic could potentially cause more panic, they’d never know what to do with those silent panickers who never mentioned panic on a questionnaire.  Or, God forbid, what to do with someone who was in the midst of a full blown attack.

“Listen, I know that you’ve picked up on the panic note in my form, but it really seemed like you were more freaked out by the possibility of me panicking than I was by the procedures,” I said to the hygienist.

She just looked at me, dumbfounded, so I kept blabbering on about how I didn’t like the going to the dentist office, like most of the world, but talking about my propensity for panic the entire time didn’t tell her anything about what I was actually feeling.  I spoke quietly.  I smiled.

And she started crying.

She told me that she also had a problem with anxiety and that the dentist chair frightened her.  She continued to cry.

I started talking about myself, my life, the things I’ve accomplished in spite of panic, my strength.  It felt like I was talking about someone else.  I told her that it may seem like I teach people how to ride horses for a living, but I’m really just there to help them manage fear, to get them to talk about it, to work through it.

She kept crying and showed me to the front office.

I didn’t accomplish anything.  I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish, but I knew that I wasn’t doing any of us any good by keeping silent.  We need a new way of responding to people’s fears, like saying bless you when someone sneezes, a response that’s not charged with our own discomfort.  A way of saying we acknowledge their distress but don’t want to contribute to it.

Maybe it’s something as simple as: What can I do to help?

Though troubled by my failed attempt at brightening the office staff’s day, I felt oddly empowered as I left the dentist’s office.  I had arrived on the other side of dread and though I might not stay there long, it’s a strangely lucid place to be, accepting, being present, stilling the chattering monkeys (ack!) in my mind.  I had visited the dentist’s office and other than that one moment when I yanked the x ray apparatus out of my mouth, I was fine.

The next question was: how do I apply this to teaching people and horses?

I think all veterinarians agree that animals also have the capacity to dread medical procedures and have the ability to exacerbate the pain of all parties involved ten-fold.  It’s just good sense to be weary of the panic response in a twelve hundred pound horse when you go at it with a needle or a weird looking radiograph machine (or a piece of paper, or a gust of wind, or a reflection on the surface of a bucket, etc.)

I’ve had ten year old children tell me, “I wish my horse could tell me what was wrong.”  I know. Me too.

But I’ve also encountered a lot of perfectly verbal, two-footed creatures who have no language to describe their fears, who cannot tell me what is wrong (I count myself amongst them).  So how do we create an environment that is mutually conducive to putting someone at ease while helping them find their strength?

For me, horses have always been that conduit.  The quickest way to smack myself out of impending panic is to have something bigger to focus on.  It’s impossible to spend a day in a barn without a constant stream of crises to be averted, things that must be attended to, my body working more than my mind.  If airplane seats come with a series of tasks or puzzles, there would be far fewer people freaking out during take off (bonus points for the illusion that the tasks were somehow keeping the plane aloft).

At our farm, a student will never be reprimanded for asking an instructor to lower a jump or suggesting that it might not be a good day for a canter.  Their only requirement is that they spend some time at the walk in warm-up asking their horse, “What can I do to help?”

They must do this if they’re having a good day or a bad day.  They must do this if they’re frightened or elated.  They must work past their fear of the horse’s panic response to arrive at a place where they can be of assistance, often by having to travel directly through their own panic response to get there.  This is riding, and there will never be a failing grade for making the decision to get off the horse and try again tomorrow.

Despite instances of mass hysteria, fear is a solitary act, and the right sort of communication has the potential to disrupt it, to send it back to the dark corner of the stall where it rests in between the cobwebs.  Sometimes the scariest thing is simply reaching out and being present in the midst of another person’s fear, or the horse’s fear, or both — even if we’re left feeling helpless because we can’t do anything to fix it.

And it’s only now that I’ve gotten to the end of this odd post that I realize, when the hygienist was crying I busied myself with the exact same medicine she had given me.  I kept talking about myself.

What can I do to help?

I’ll go use my old toothbrush to clean some tack and try to not make anyone cry today.

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