On Overcoming Fear of Tooth-Shaming & Cost To See A Dentist At Last

“Working up the nerve to spend money on something you dread sucks!”


We got a letter ask us to mouth off on the subject of dental fear and how to overcome it, and you don’t need an x-ray to see how enthusiastic I am to help! To start with, here’s the problem, according to the LW.

Dear Billfolders,

My “do one thing” goal for the entirety of 2016 is: go to the dentist already. But I’m terrified, by both the dentist’s drill and the dental bill — so I keep putting it off. Working up the nerve to spend money on something you dread sucks! I haven’t gotten a cleaning in several years, and I’d feel a lot braver about doing this if I armed myself with your advice and insight. I’ve got several basic questions, but first, some background:

I’m 23, living in Brooklyn, with a laughably low-paying job and no dental insurance, but I’m stable financially. Savings flux account of about $7,500, which I occasionally draw from for long-term expenses like furniture or security deposits. Plus, I have a 4-year CD maturing next week for $500 that I’d totally forgotten about. (I know you shouldn’t consider found/forgotten money a freebie, but it’ll soften the blow of my dental expenses!)

I anticipate this to be crazy-costly … but, how much dough are we talking?

If I don’t have insurance, do I need to bring any other papers with me?

Would it be gauche to ask for a discount for paying in cash at time of service?

And, on the less logistical side of things, I’m so SCARED! Billfolders (let’s keep the term I’m about to use on the DL, because I don’t want it to become a thing): I don’t want someone to tooth-shame me.

My teeth are all present and accounted for, but they’ve gone a dingy yellow from a few years of debilitating depression, smoking, and general early 20’s shitty hygiene. Weirdly, I move my retainer from apartment to apartment, but it hasn’t fit my mouth in years (it’s probably the least joy-sparking thing in my apartment, but guilt over the money my parents spent on braces irrationally compels me to keep it). But, I’m ready to get back on track now! I’d rather spend a little more money, within reason, and get a kind, non-judgmental dentist.

How do I find a dentist who won’t be mean about my nasty gum-line while I’m trapped and drooling? I’d travel to any borough but Staten Island.

Thanks in advance for your advice! So ready to stop stressing over this and start smiling again,

bad-mouthed Brooklyn babe

Dear BBB,

Guess what? Seriously, I mean it: the hardest part is over. The hardest part of doing anything you’re afraid to do is scraping the gum of your own dread off of the bottom of your shoe so that you can move. You’ve done that! You’ve articulated that you want to change your pattern at last, that you’re going to find a dentist and get a visit over with, even if it’s a little unpleasant and a little expensive. So congrats. The rest will be a piece of low-refined-sugar cake.

As it happens, you’ve come to the right place to ask for advice because, just a few months ago, I was in the exact same position you are now. I didn’t have dental insurance; I hadn’t had a cleaning in years; and though I knew I needed to see a professional, I hated the idea of opening myself up to both cost and ridicule.

I did it anyway, with a little bit of help. From a friend, I got a recommendation for a local Brooklyn dentist who often works with patients who don’t accept insurance. When I called to make an appointment, I mentioned my status and the receptionist was like, Sure, no problem, as though she heard that all the time, because she probably does. She told me that a cleaning-for-cash would cost an eminently reasonable $170.

Was I tooth-shamed once I went in? Was I scolded or yelled at or in any way made to feel small for having avoided the dentist for so long? No, BBB, I was not. As I wrote about for the site, I was treated like a human being worthy of respect, even when I was on my back and drooling onto a paper bib.

What It’s Like To See A Dentist With No Insurance

I recommend the dentist I saw — I’ll email you back with their contact info — but mostly and in general, I recommend doing the thing you’re scared of. Dread feeds on inaction, and, in turn, it produces more inaction, more inertia, more dread. Disrupt the cycle. Pick up the phone, with a friend there to bolster you, even dial for you, if necessary. Channel Eleanor Roosevelt, who told us, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Remember that, according to the New York Times, almost everything we think we know about dental health could be wrong anyway, including the fact that we’re supposed to go twice a year.

Surprisingly Little Evidence for the Usual Wisdom About Teeth

Even if you’re not as lucky as I was, even if the dentist does find a cavity or the hygienist makes a face at the color of your incisors, it’s still better to be on the other side, looking back, no longer a victim of your own internal monologue. It’s better to have proven to yourself that you are bigger than your fear. And the sooner you do it, the sooner you’ll catch any potential problems that could otherwise become super expensive later.

May I recommend calling the dentist on Thursday? Thursday is, after all, a great day to do 1 thing.

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