Friday, 12 February 2016

Facing fears...

Like most people, I hate visiting the dentist. And when I say hate, I mean HATE! If I am honest though, I am actually afraid of going despite multiple visits following blowing out my front teeth while ice-skating in the nineties. Idiot that I was, I figured  could skate with my hands in my pockets with the oh-so-predictable result that I fell on my face and literally bit the ice. Ouch! When I am on the Chair I sweat buckets and am rigid with tension and fear, with my hands clenched into knots. I am just waiting for the pain to come. Yet after the visit, which usually turns out to be not so bad, I am exhausted and only want to sleep. Post traumatic stress disorder, indeed!

Mostly, I can conquer this fear as I can rationalise that the visit is in my own best interests and that time and money spent in the chair are well invested in my future health and well-being. I am still always ready to run though if my appointment is late and I try to convince myself that the toothache is "not THAT bad". Luckily, I have had a very good dentist over the years who makes small-talk (a rarity in Finns) while working. The last work was to replace separate crowns in my upper front teeth, which were no longer straight, with both crowns in a single block. That was over two years ago. Since then, I have made excuse after excuse for not returning; too busy at work, my teeth feel fine etc. and suddenly so much time has elapsed. I could keep on making excuses until I do have bad toothache and I really need to go. So today, it was high time to make that appointment and tomorrow is the day. I am terrified!

We experience fear (in all its myriad forms) almost every day but some of us are better at dealing with it than others. I wrote in a previous post about being afraid to compete in the Helsinki Open Longsword 2016 tournament; afraid of losing matches, of looking foolish and feeling ashamed that I would not do better. This fear troubled me enough at times that I began to think of withdrawing from the competition altogether. However, I decided to hang tough and took part and had an extraordinarily positive experience. It was totally worth feeling the fear and going forward anyway. My dental appointment has made me think about how many things scare me on a daily basis and I began to wonder why I am like this.

I remember being in fear of the nuns in primary school. Afraid I would do something wrong, terrified that some one would tell the teacher on me. One nun in particular liked to pinch, her favourite spot was the inside of your upper arm. Another method was to put her silver ring (as a Bride of Christ, hah!) on her knuckle and rap you on the skull. Infractions like misbehaving and making too much noise got you pinched or rapped, as did not joining up your letters properly. Corporal punishment continued through school but as I got bigger and my sense of boyhood bravado grew, being lifted by the ear or sidelocks, whacks across the palms of the hands with a bamboo cane, often called 'Charlie' (with a capital C) in 'six of the best' hurt but the sense of fear was gone. You took the punishment, forced a smile to hide the pain, then wrapped your hands around the cold metal legs of your desk to cool the sting. Weirdly enough, the physical aspect I do not really remember as being so bad. I mean, I got slapped occasionally but we didn't have the living shit kicked out of us. The absolute worst was the humiliation tactic, a tried and tested technique by some teachers of the 'Old Guard' of school-teaching and designed to break people. I only had limited direct experience of this but others had it far worse, especially the softer kids, sometimes feeling so bad they pissed themselves in front of the class, further compounding their shame. And we others watched and perhaps felt sympathy but were probably thankful it was not us, this time. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a sob story and I actually liked school a lot.

Inexplicable fears have stayed with me to this day. I often have that fear that I will get that sudden heavy hand on the shoulder and hear "Oi, what the hell are you doing? You are not supposed to be here!" like the centurion played by John Cleese in 'Life of Brian'. Living in a foreign country with a foreign language has not helped to soften the fear either. The thing is though, it's just in my head. How many times in life have I been afraid of new situations, job interviews, starting beginners' course in various martial arts, new jobs, giving public presentations (in Finnish!) etc. yet somehow once I get through these situations, I realise they weren't so bad. Invariably, they never are. I do try to prepare as much as possible beforehand so I can feel in control of the situation  and maybe have a backup plan. It would be great if I could follow the Buddhist tenet, "Relax, nothing is under control" but that's not very realistic for me, even though it has a ring of truth.

Three things about fear: 1. My fears are not yours. 2. We deal with our fears differently. 3. The scale of fear is relative. When I think of what Syrian refugee families have had to go through both in their home country, as well as the harrowing journey to get away to safety, my fears seem very petty. Compared to them, there is literally nothing holding me back. My fears are not mortal. Like my childhood fears in school and those of the refugees, I had no power to change the situation, my power was taken away from me. By comparison, now I have power over my adult fears. I can feel them but go through with things anyway. I can choose to face things or not. We develop our 'comfort zone' outside which we do not often choose to go.

The rather splendid Irish ring hilt sword logo of HEMA Ireland

In an attempt to get out of my comfort zone, I decided to take part in a fencing tournament last month. It was scary but worth it. Now I am planning to visit several different historical fencing clubs around Ireland to train with and lead some Fiore classes. There is a burgeoning HEMA scene in Ireland, which did not exist when I left in 2000. Also, meeting an Irish fencer who travelled all the way from Ireland to take part in the Helsinki Longsword 2016 tournament was inspiring and a great indication of a thriving community. This is a great opportunity for me to put myself out there, meet new people and hit them with swords! What could be better? I sent an open email to the HEMA Ireland facebook page and to several clubs. So far, I have been in contact with at least six different groups from the four corners of the island! Yaay! 
Shit! What have I let myself in for?.....

Dentist update: I will need at least two small fillings and a visit to the oral hygienist to have the plaque scraped off. Actually not that bad! The plaque removal is almost worse than the fillings. Oh well, at least I can limit the procedures to one per week until it's done. Fear in small doses is much easier to deal with. Baby steps.....


  1. I have an incredible fear of the dentist, and I understand yours! My childhood dentist was fine, I guess, but it seemed so medieval. Your fear just solidifies mine, and I hope that one day I can get a good dentist too. Fear is a terrible thing, and I wish I could get rid of mine forever.

  2. Great post! You really got deep in the analysis of your fears and fear in general, which really made this a fascinating and universal post. You make a great point about reminding yourself that what you’re doing at the dentist is for your health and better interest. I think that is a great way to face your fears--be positive!

  3. What a great story about facing your dentistry fears. It is a common, but difficult fear for many people to conquer, but you took it on intelligently. Analyzing the fear until you realize it is irrational is a great way to convince yourself to defeat the fear. Great job! And I am glad that your teeth were not that bad!