“For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently.”
~ Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, V.i.36
“It’s been like this for years.” The old Armenian doctor with a thick accent and a kind face heavily scarred from acne is yanking back and forth on my numbed tooth.
“What?” I mutter absent-mindedly.
“The infection. It’s been like this for years, no? This affects everything: heart, brain, everything.”
I think back to when I had the filling put in.
The Saban Free Clinic off Beverly Boulevard. Jennifer, a dental student at USC, worked on my teeth. She told me she’d X-Ray the area and if there was no infection, she’d give me a filling. Otherwise, I’d need a root canal. I knew it was at least mildly infected, as I sometimes used to have to pop little pustules on my gum above the tooth. I didn’t say anything, because I was a student too, and couldn’t afford a root canal. Jennifer read the X-Rays negative. I got a filling. That was four years ago.
“Four years? I’ve been running my arteries & nerves through a cesspool of infection for four years? How has this affected my writing?” I wonder. I get another burst of body-wide perspiration. I’m trying to control the shaking. I’m light-headed. I’ve barely slept or eaten for three days. I’m using the deep breathing and mental focus techniques I’ve learned in the last few years to control my panic attacks. I’m having one now, but it’s not like the others.
“Breathe normal,” the old man tells me, as if that were easy.
He’s using a drill to cut my molar into three parts. I smell burning enamel and taste sand grain-sized tooth particles on the non-numbed side of my tongue. He puts the drill down, picks up dental pliers, and starts yanking again.
All I feel is pressure. There’s no pain. So why am I reacting this way? What’s up with my bodily reaction? It’s beyond my control.
Maw. Something is happening to my mouth. My mouth is a cave surveyed by an alien intelligence with hostile intent and precise metal tools. My mouth is a stage filled with tiny white actors. A flash of recognition and the prolonged gaze of the specialist makes my mouth visible as an object for my consciousness as a vulnerable opening-for-another, in addition to the usual invisible apparatus for subjective chewing. So this is what it feels like to have one’s subjective mouth objectified. Uncanny, unsettling, surreal. Mouth-subject becomes mouth-object, but the latter is missing a habituated concept, so the alienated concept of “cave” temporarily substitutes. A cave at once mine and not mine. Mouth now exists in some uncomfortable place between subject and object. With the mouthwork as the site of transformation, the “I” with which I usually identify has become liminal: I am the subject, and the subject is this open mouth. Or, as the Narrator in Fight Club might say, “I am Jack’s infected molar.”
“Unngh! Unnnggghh!!!” There’s the pain. The alien pulls his pliers out of my mouth. “I’m super light-headed.”
“Let’s stop a bit,” the Armenian obliges. “Sit up.” He pushes a lumbar button and the robotic dental recliner shape-shifts into its upright configuration. “Turn toward me.”
“Now head down.” He pushes my head between my legs and puts his hand on the back of my neck. “Push up!” he commands.
I push against his hand for a few seconds. Then he lets me sit up. He takes my wrist and pulse.
As soon as he reassures, “Pulse is normal,” “I know” comes out of my mouth. I do know. I’ve become an inside-out expert in the various kinds of panic attacks and can distinguish among their subtle experiential differences. So I know my pulse is normal. Still, it’s comforting to know that he knows, and that he’s willing to say it out loud to me. We make small talk for a few minutes.
“We go again?” he smiles. I consent. I lie back. More yanking, twisting, pulling.
The old quip, “The only thing to fear is fear itself” is eerily poignant to people who get panic attacks. Thinking about the fact you’re panicking makes you panic more. It’s a feedback loop.
Feedback loops have a structure and function all their own. Since physics often provides cognitive metaphors for metaphysics, the idea of a feedback loop may prove a rich source for philosophy. Poetry is one of my favorite genres in which to write philosophy and I’ve written a poem or two using the meme of feedback loops. Very different from linear causality.
Another tremor. I usually don’t shake during panic attacks. This is different. This is body trauma. Something doesn’t want to let go.
He removes the pliers. “That hurt?”
Thank you, Dr. Obvious. Yes. It hurt.
Scarface puts down the pliers and picks up a syringe. He pokes the needle into the roof of my mouth, just as he’d done at the beginning of the surgery. I feel the prick, the hot flow of chemicals into my system. It burns for a second, then feels good. As we wait for the numbing agent to kick in, I resolve that if I ever do this again, I’ll wait the extra day and go in for general anesthesia.
In circumstances like these, a day is no small matter. A couple days ago, I ingested enough painkillers to kill a medium-sized zebra. And that was just to get the pain manageable. In the last week, I’ve only had two truly “pain-free” instances, each lasting only a few moments. First instance: 10mg hydrocodone, 1000mg acetaminophen, 400mg ibuprofen, 20% benzocaine (topical). Single dose. One hour later, pain free for about two hours. Second instance: oddly enough, after no other topical or oral combination worked, 6 drops of cannabis glycerin. Immediate relief, pain-free mentally and physically for a few moments. Then enough pain reduction to get a highly rare and extremely coveted hour of sleep. Then six more drops. A second hour of sleep.
The doctor pushes against the huge, swollen, infected mass that covers the entire right side of my hard palate. “Is numb?”
“I can still feel it.”
I used to live near here, back in the day. Less than a mile from this office. Golden years. Post-religion, pre-anxiety. Sacred Dice glory days. My first drug phase, which remade me as a philosopher. “Consciousness rides chemicals” has been my formula, ever since the days my mental village turned cosmopolitan. Pre-divorce too. Talk about emotional trauma. Worse than my mentor’s suicide or the wholesale social exile and character assassination that often accompanies leaving a conservative ideological group. At the end of those days, I was an utterly desperate man as the finality of the separation descended, shamelessly crying my eyes out in public places like the Wilshire & San Vicente Coffee Bean or at La Cienega Park, where just this morning I strolled with my wickedly intelligent and ravishing girlfriend of two years. Destruction and creation.
“Is numb yet?” He pushes again.
“I still feel it.”
The doctor explains to me that the infection is blocking the medicine. He’s injecting local anaesthesic straight into pus. From here out, it’s pliers vs tooth, no filter. Raw pain.
I lie back. “I can deal with pain,” I think. I played high school football. Invaluable training for mental toughness.
This is not high school football. The Armenian grows bold, pulling harder, working faster than before. He takes our chat as license to inflict any pain necessary to get the job done.
Burn your thesaurus. The pain is beyond words. I clench my fists as tears stream down my face.
My friend John introduced me to mind-altering drugs. At the time, he fancied himself something of a shaman, even loaned me his copy of Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. Following his lead, part of my induction into the world of shamanic drug use was learning the art of willed psychosomatic mindfulness. My eyes opened wide onto a new world rife with magic. Back then, I had enough of a mind-body connection to look my friends straight in the eyes and extinguish a burning cigarette on my hand without feeling any pain. I achieved this feat two or three times before the blister on my hand pulled me back into my body and checked my misguided shamanistic egoism.
This isn’t that. There’s no escape.
Doc clamps onto my tooth and TWISTS his pliers from the right side of my mouth all the way to the left.
Medieval torture. Nerve rape. Back in the Middle Ages when the theory of “humors” ruled medicine, they’d drain fluids to restore the body’s balance. They believed vile spirits inhabited certain fluids. I’m shaking and sweating and hoping for a quick drain. Extraction as exorcism.
I hear my tooth crack. I clench my fists harder, looking for somewhere to go in my head.
During my darkest hour, when my version of Winston Churchill’s “Big Black Dog” was at its biggest and blackest, I used to identify and catalogue suicidal ideations by noting which internal sensory modalities they affected (e.g. images, voices, feelings), before summoning the courage to stave off most varieties by taking mental vacations to El Matador Beach. It’s a tiny State Beach nestled just north of Zuma on the PCH. Sea caves. Tide pools. No tourists. Feels like a private beach. I’ve had beach sex there several times. Think about the good things. Easy trick, really. Dissociation.
Then I remember the scene in Fight Club where the Narrator has been visiting self-help groups for people with all sorts of fatal ailments he doesn’t have. He’s just there for the camaraderie. The guided meditation guru at one such group recommends a similar pop-psychology magic trick: find a safe place and a power animal. Whenever pain or fear intrude, go to your safe place and find your power animal. The Narrator chooses an ice cave with a penguin. Fuck that. Tyler Durden holds the Narrator down and pours lye on his hand. The Narrator tries to dissociate. Tyler won’t let him: “This is the greatest moment of your life man, and you’re off somewhere missing it.”
Narrator grovels, begs.
“First you have to give up. First you have to know… not fear… know… that someday you’re gonna die.”
“You don’t know how this feels!”
Tyler shows Narrator burn mark on his own hand.
Narrator becomes placid, subdued.
Tyler’s closing remark: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
I decide to try it on the next yank. Clenched fists, tears gushing spontaneously. Blood, I’m sure, too. I can’t see the blood, but I know it’s part of the process. What is pain?
Oh, that’s pain. Suddenly, I’m in my body. I’m integrated. Whole. There’s a sort of twisted peace in this. It’s not perfect. I’ve still got thoughts and ideations. I imagine my tooth as the cork to a champagne bottle. I know I don’t get better unless it comes out. I focus on the tooth itself, the pain, the meaning of it all as part of the healing process.
It’s out. Immediate relief. The doctor informs me that pus is oozing out. The pain is gone. What’s utterly amazing is that the panic is gone too. Years of anxiety ooze out, their enamel headstone uprooted.
The doctor waves the bloody crown and root in front of me. “See?”
I do see. I’m hallucinating crystal clarity. Like sunrise over downtown Los Angeles after a night of hard rain from the top of Runyon Canyon. Like years of high-decibel television static, switched off in an instant. Like mushrooms.
Doctor Incredible sews me back up as I marvel at my new superpowers. All that pus. All that anxiety. How will this affect my writing? I’ll probably need to go home and rest. My friend Lauren brought over the Star Wars trilogy. A New Hope sounds good.