Snakes and Dentists

emblem_bwpho·bi·a

/ˈfōbēə/

noun

  1. an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

I’m not superstitious nor to I believe in things like good luck charms. In general I am a very rational person who eschews conspiracy theories and urban myths. Still, I have to admit to having a number of phobias, among them being forced off of a bridge while driving my car and being caught in a burning building. Without a doubt, however, my two most heart pounding fears are of snakes and dentists.

We humans once lived in trees and so the fear of snakes is primordial and I suppose even a bit Biblical. In my own case it tracks back to two events from my childhood. The first occurred when an elderly neighbor was bitten by a water moccasin that wandered into her backyard from a nearby bayou. She stepped on it in the dark and at first thought she had accidentally stumbled over her dachshund. When she felt the sharp sting of the reptile’s venom she looked down and saw what had really happened. She spent many days in the hospital lingering near death and those of us who knew her kept vigil and prayed. I suppose that her advanced age had more to do with the seriousness of her condition than the actual bite but the thought of danger lurking in the dark of my yard haunted me so much that over time I developed a total aversion to any form of snake whether poisonous or not.

Like Indiana Jones I become mush at the mere thought of a snake and my anxieties with regard to them only increased after an incident with my grandmother when I was about six. She and my grandfather were living on a farm in Arkansas back then and they prided themselves in being able to live mostly off of the bounty of the land. They planted crops that kept them generously supplied with fruit and vegetables and raised chickens and a cow for meat and milk. Grandma was a kind of pioneer woman who was handy with a rifle and she proved her mettle by bagging deer and squirrels as well. More than anything she was an expert fisherwoman. I suppose my father learned to love fishing from her.

One afternoon when we were visiting the farm my grandmother and grandfather decided to go angling for fish and asked if I wanted to come along. I so enjoyed being with them that i joyfully agreed to go. When we got to the place where they hoped to get some fresh trout for dinner my grandmother first went to inspect the area. Without any sort of explanation she returned to the car with a concerned look and sternly warned me to stay in the car assuring me that they would not take long. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. It was a warm summer day and even though the car was parked under the shade of an enormous tree I soon became hot and bored. I defied my grandmother’s command and decided to join her on the rickety wooden pier where she was so intent on fishing that she did not see me coming up behind her.

As I approached my grandparents I suddenly saw what seemed to be an army of snakes lifting their heads out of the water as though waiting for a handout from the humans invading their habitat. When one of them attempted to slither up a pillar of the structure where she was standing Grandma took her fishing pole and beat it away. I was so stunned and horrified that I began screaming in terror. Grandma spun around to see me and without a word hurried me back to the safety of the car, chastising me for ignoring her instructions. As she and Grandpa gathered up their catch and their fishing gear I sat in the automobile more disturbed than ashamed. I could not get the horrific vision of all of those snakes out of my mind. In all honesty it still haunts me if truth be told. From that moment forward I have been totally terrorized by the mere thought of snakes.

My dental anxieties are also a product of my youth. I had the unfortunate bad luck to have a pediatric dentist who never should have been allowed to interact with children. From a very young age I needed a great deal of work on my teeth and he did little to make the process bearable. In fact he berated me for what he was sure were bad eating habits each time I visited his office. In truth my mother never purchased sugary treats or drinks with the exception of very special occasions and she was fastidious about having me brush my teeth both morning and night, so the doctor’s harangues were always confusing to me because I was only about five years old when he seemed to take delight in punishing me by inflicting pain.

I never mentioned any of this to my mother because I just assumed that his methods were the way it always was. As I grew older I simply armed myself with prayer which on one occasion included bringing a set of rosary beads to pray while he tortured me. When he saw me clinging tightly to the beads and moving my fingers along them one by one he became enraged and called my mother back into his office. His tone was accusing when he demanded to know why I was insulting him by insinuating that I needed the help of the Blessed Mother herself to endure my session with him. At that point all of my concerns spilled out at once in a kind of core dump of fear. My mother gathered me up immediately and we never again returned to his office.

Since that time every single dentist that I have visited has been kind and virtually pain free but my phobia continues. It is as though I worry that one day I will once again encounter a thoughtless dentist who will subject me to pain. I can’t seem to get over the trauma of my earliest experiences of keeping my teeth strong and healthy. Such is the nature of a phobia.

I suspect that most phobias are born in our earlier memories of painful situations. We sometimes assume that frightening experiences need little explanation but sometimes they linger in the subconscious growing into monsters that never leave us. When my eldest daughter was only three we took her to a lovely park in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As we sat on a bench enjoying the view a huge swarm of pigeons flew in to greet us and perhaps get a snack or two. We laughed with delight but it was apparent that our daughter was quite disturbed. A cousin who was with us happened to also be a psychologist. He insisted that we talk with our little girl about what had happened and allow her to express her fears Over the next few days he gently brought up the incident several times until he was certain that she truly understood that it was okay for her to feel frightened and that the birds had actually meant no harm.

Perhaps if someone like the cousin had been around to counsel me way back in the past I might be comfortable with both snakes and dentists. Sadly that is not to be.