What’s your deepest darkest fear? Mine, I’ve come to realise over the course of time, may actually be dental hygienists. This, please feel free to refrain from pointing out, explains why my teeth are smelly and caramel-coloured and I’m going to spend the last decades of my life eating only soup.
Why hygienists? It’s dentists, I know, that scare most people more—with their whining drills, needles dripping anaesthetic and enthusiasm for kneeling on your chest and ripping things out of your face with pliers. Many a case of dental caries, to be sure, has gone untreated as a direct result of Laurence Olivier’s performance in Marathon Man. Hygienists are regarded as their more or less herbivorous cousins.
That’s the way I felt, back in the day. For most of my twenties my beef with hygienists was not that I feared them, but that I simply couldn’t see the point of them. With dentists, at least, you knew where you were: if you have a hole in your tooth, the dentist is the go-to guy. The procedure might not be pleasant, but at the end of it you’ll either have no hole in your tooth, or no tooth. Badda-bing badda-boom.
Hygienists, on the other hand—they did… what, exactly? Oh, sure, they were pleasant enough. When I was a child, my mother would take me along once every few months. The process involved disclosing tablets, which were actually super-fun: you chewed this tanninous little purple disco biscuit and then grinned. All the plaque on your teeth was lurid red. Then you brushed it off. You always had that trade-off: did you give your teeth a massive scrubbing before you went to the hygienist so as to impress them; or did you let things slide so you looked cool, like a vampire, at disclosing tablet time? Big choice for an eight-year-old.
Like the Jesuits, who are said to maintain that if they get their hooks into the child the adult isn’t going anywhere (I paraphrase), hygienists use the fun of disclosing tablets to sucker you into the habit of visiting them. When you’re a grown-up, they change the game. Now you’re having tartar scraped off your teeth with bloody great billhooks, or this incredibly gritty paste whizzed over your molars with what feels like some sort of spinning rubber pad.
The visits got marginally less pleasant, but the sense of pointlessness remained. Even to a child (vide the disclosing tablet dilemma) it seemed manifest that the hygienist was only really able to assess your teeth on the basis of the last brushing you did. And the advice, from adolescence onwards, never changed: brush your teeth (twice a day, little circles, have you thought of an electric toothbrush?) and use dental floss. Why, I always wondered, did I need to shell out once every six months to be told to use dental floss? Why did you need a framed diploma on your wall to tell people to use dental floss? Good advice, no question—but once you’ve heard it, y’know, it’s pretty much gone in.
It’s only recently that I have started to suspect that my blustering belief in the pointlessness of dental hygienists may be cover for something more sinister: mortal terror—terror because the dentist may mean physical pain, but the hygienist means facing up to mortality.
Your teeth don’t grow back. Unlike your skin, your bone marrow, your brain cells and most of the rest of you they won’t regenerate. They don’t fight the passage of time. No matter how much you floss you’re not growing a fresh layer of enamel. Every chip and knock, every acid-bath of fizzy water or orange juice (who knew these health-giving things were betraying us?) does its damage and that damage stays done.
The dentist is actually fixing stuff, while the hygienist is simply taking a sober look at your mouth, and telling you how much closer, each time, you are to fissures, cavities, exposed dentine, agonising pain from ice cream, tea etc. It’s a six-monthly warning on the nearness of your approach to “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” There are some tips offered for delaying the inevitable (“Brush! Use dental floss!”), but what one tends to hear in that formula is not “delay” so much as “inevitable.”
On my last visit—where I learned inter alia that the enthusiasm with which I brushed, in the hopes of not losing the enamel on my teeth, was directly responsible for, er, losing the enamel on my teeth—my hygienist got particularly perky. She peered into my mouth with the look of a cat that has just discovered a particularly plump and uncoordinated mouse in the bottom of a cardboard box.
“Oh look!” she said. “Dear, oh dear; your teeth are completely flat. You’re grinding them in your sleep. Carry on like that and you’ll go right through the dentine.” There was some discussion of gumshields and such. She turned to her assistant, brightly. “We’re seeing more and more of this these days, aren’t we? I think it’s the recession.”
It’s not the recession that’s making me grind my teeth, I would have said if I hadn’t had a mouthful of billhooks and vacuum tubes. It’s dental hygienists.