After Years of Neglect, I Finally Faced My Fears and Went to the Dentist

A thrilling adventure in which our food critic, following decades of bad experiences, climbs into the chair to find out if there’s any hope for a dental delinquent.

fear of the dentist

Jason Sheehan faced his fear of dentists to have these X-rays taken.

Laura, my wife, has this playlist called “’70s Dentist Office Waiting Room Music.”

Collected, culled, curated over years, it’s a deep dive into wood paneling and turtlenecks, childhood memories, and that particular flavor of vacant, almost narcotic 1970s and ’80s boredom that existed before cell phones. Before televisions were everywhere. Before the world decided that everyone had to be entertained all the time.

It’s a museum-grade artifact, a sonic portrait of late afternoons in Dr. Moses’s Norristown office, where she’d sit in chairs with her feet not quite reaching the floor with nothing else to do but listen to Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” and Christopher Cross singing “Sailing” while she waited for her teeth to get cleaned.

There’s a purity to it. A heartbreaking innocence. It isn’t cool. It isn’t ironic. It’s history — hers, mine (a little bit), ours (all of ours) — and though Laura has done many excellent things in her life, I feel like this playlist is her masterpiece. It’s instant memory, a time and a place distilled into a handful of song titles, some harmony, a little Hall, a little Oates.

She asks me, “You have your headphones?” I do. She asks if I have my wallet, my phone, the link she sent to the playlist last night. I do.

“Are you going to be okay?”

I look at her, wide-eyed, blowing out a shaky breath. I don’t have to say anything, because she already knows the answer. I am NOT going to be okay.

I’m going to the dentist, and I do not like the dentist.

At all.

Stuck in the Middle With You

Stealers Wheel, Stealers Wheel

Laura’s memories of Dr. Moses’s office are fairly benign. She has strong teeth, didn’t have cavities, always got a cookie. She didn’t exactly look forward to going (at least, not until a few years later, when Dr. Moses built a special room in the office just for kids, with an Asteroids arcade cabinet — the absolute height of awesome), but she didn’t dread it, either.

My experiences were different.

Where I grew up, in Rochester, New York, my family went to a dentist I’m going to call Dr. Two Boats, because he had one boat and was always talking about how he wanted another one. He was middle-aged and his breath was terrible, but he was cheap, which mattered a lot then. Forty years later, I can still taste his ungloved fingers in my mouth if I think about it.

Every visit to Dr. Two Boats was a fucking nightmare — always painful, always bloody, always pointless. No matter what he did to me while I was in the chair, it was never quite enough. There’d always be a reason I had to come back for another appointment, another procedure. Part of it is genetics: I have soft teeth, and they were always going to be a problem. But part of it (most of it) was Dr. Two Boats, who never used enough Novocaine. Who never cared how much I squirmed. Who always said “Just another minute” when I felt the drill get close to the nerve, and then clamped a hand down on my small shoulder to keep me still.

I learned to hate dentists in his chair. To be terrified of that pain, the whine of the drill, the smells of disinfectant and bulk mouthwash, the taste of bubble-gum fluoride treatment and blood in my mouth like sucking on old pennies. That fear, combined with poverty — and thus a lifestyle that didn’t exactly prioritize dental health — kept me away from dentists for years. Decades.

But I’m 46 years old now. My teeth are a mess. It’s time. I know that. I have to see if anything can be done.

Lucky for me, Philly Mag was curious about the same thing. My bosses wanted someone to write about the advances in cosmetic dentistry, what’s possible and what’s not. Someone who’d need some actual work done. Who would have a reason to visit one of the best cosmetic dentists in the region.

I was perfect. I was also the worst possible choice. But my editor, Tom, tells me he has a guy he thinks might be perfect, too.

What A Fool Believes

The Doobie Brothers, Minute by Minute

“I have a couple ideas how we can do this,” Dr. Joe says, and I can hear him smiling on the other end of the phone. “Call me when you get off the train and we can talk about it.”

Joseph Roberts looks younger than he is, with his long, curly hair and very white teeth. In photos, he stares straight into the camera, guileless. He looks like a guy who toured once with the third-best metal band in Dayton, Ohio, came out of it with nothing but good memories and lifelong friends, and still jams sometimes on Sunday afternoons in his garage but leaves the amps unplugged.

He has two offices in Rittenhouse, and I’m headed for the newer of the two — Dentists on the Square on Walnut Street, which he took over a few years ago and is proud of.

We’ve talked, Dr. Joe and I. Texted back and forth. He understands the bones of what I’m trying to do for this story, but nothing about me, my history, my messed-up smile. That, I figure, will be a surprise.

For 40 minutes on the train, I sit with my eyes closed, headphones on, listening to Laura’s playlist — Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) and Toto (“Africa”) dripping aural Valium straight into my brain. I’m just trying to slow my pounding heart, to fall into Laura’s memories instead of my own.

When I get Dr. Joe back on the phone, he has a plan. He thinks the best way to do this is to have me walk in cold. To act like any other patient arriving for a first visit. He won’t tell anyone I’m coming, won’t say I’m a writer.

“You can just have that experience, you know? A real experience.” He’ll have one of his people shoot some pictures, X-rays, then he’ll do an exam. “We’ll talk a little,” he says, “and then I’ll leave.” At which point, he’ll have one of the other dentists at the practice come in and do the same — a young guy, Temple grad, residency at Johns Hopkins, the kind of résumé that mothers brag about. They’ll assess me independently, come up with separate plans, and then we’ll all sit down and compare notes. Dr. Joe is curious whether he and his associate will come to the same conclusions. He tells me these young guys, they sometimes have some wild ideas. They can do amazing things. I can hear the excitement in his voice.

“Sounds like fun,” I tell him, but my free hand is balled into a fist so tight that my nails leave crescent moons of red dug into my palm.

I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)

Michael McDonald, If That’s What It Takes

Like skin, like bone, teeth hold onto the scars that record our rough passage through this life.

I have a bone chip in my knee and a scar on my hip from falling off the back of a motorcycle when I was younger. That thing about tucking and rolling? It doesn’t work every time.

There’s a white line between my second and third knuckles where I put a chef’s knife through my hand back when I still cooked for a living. I also have a rough oval to remind me of the time I lost a piece of skin the size of a dime from punching a guy straight in his wristwatch, and my arms still have fading burn marks from grill tops and oven doors.

When I was 21 or 22, I got my jaw dislocated and two back teeth knocked out in a fight (not the same one where I hit the guy in the watch). I’m missing another tooth, upper right side. My son knocked that one out with his head when he was a baby, just two hours before I was due to be at a book signing — a big hometown event that I couldn’t miss because there were already posters hung up with my face on them and people would probably notice if I didn’t show up.

I never had the money to fix my teeth, and after Dr. Two Boats, I never had any interest in seeing another dentist, ever. I got used to the gaps the way I got used to my scars, and over time, they just became less and less important to me. Now, they’re a story. Just another piece of personal history that I can poke at with my tongue and remember.

Hard Habit to Break

Chicago, Chicago 17

In the waiting room at Dentists on the Square, the receptionist offers me water, coffee or tea and a clipboard with 10 pages of forms to fill out. I immediately forget whether Joe and I agreed I should use a fake name, so I use my real one and my actual medical history (more or less), double-checking Laura’s cell-phone number before I write it down as my emergency contact. I’m dizzy when I stand up to walk the papers back to the desk. Sweating. I grab a bottle of water, then forget to drink it.

Vince Crews, the dental tech, calls my name and walks me back to the exam room. He’s a good guy, Vince. Young, in blue scrubs and comfortable shoes. He asks me gentle questions, and I try (hard) to act like I’m not completely freaking out. Like the sharp, clinical smell of the place and the high-cycling mosquito whine of the drill in the next room aren’t making me squirm in my skin like my hair is on fire. I answer with my lips pressed tight against my teeth, which is a habit. When I smile, I do it with one side of my mouth only, not showing any teeth at all, which is a habit, too.

(“I think you’d be surprised at how much you guard your smile,” Dr. Joe would say to me later. And I’d think, No, I know EXACTLY how much I do that, Doc. I’ve had a lot of goddamn practice.)

I go for a Panorex — a panoramic X-ray. The machine looks kind of like a stand-up CT scanner, with two white plates that rotate all the way around my head. Vince drapes me in a lead apron like a bulletproof vest and shows me where to stand. The machine is all white plastic, polished, smooth. He tells me to bite down on a plastic bar as he focuses red laser crosshairs on my philtrum.

“Keep your head very still,” he says. The machine hums and rotates — $120,000 of cutting-edge dental technology sending a comprehensive image of every bad thing I’ve ever done to my mouth back to the computer monitor in the exam room. But here, in the moment, all I can focus on is the mirror mounted to the machine’s central post, six inches from the tip of my nose. All I can do is stare into my own eyes and tell myself not to pass out.

When I’m back in the chair, Vince has more X-rays to take. He asks me to open my mouth, and I do even though I hate it. With blue gloves on, he inserts plastic guards and tells me to bite down. The white targeting circles extending from my gritted teeth tell him where to focus the handheld camera.

“Good,” he says. “Now another. Bite down.”

And sitting there, I’m angry at myself, because I’m thinking that this is all vanity. These stupid teeth. I have bills to pay. A daughter in braces. I’ll have to put her and her brother through college soon. My car needs tires and a new exhaust system and windows that I don’t have to shim with wooden wedges. It’s narcissism because I’m not in pain (usually) and I can still pull barbecue off the bone, so no matter what Dr. Joe says at the end of all this, it doesn’t matter. This is just a story. A job. I’m not even here. Not really.

Vince says, “This one is hard. It has to go way back there. Bite down.”

I bite, gag, bite again. And as I sit there, I’m thinking: No. It’s not any of those things — not ego or affectation. If any of this is about anything, it’s about this awful, fucked-up beans-and-wienies poverty smile and being judged for it every single day of my life. It’s about slipping up and showing my teeth to strangers and having them think I’m trash because who doesn’t have perfect teeth these days? Who doesn’t have that ideal straight white toothpaste-commercial smile except hobos, meth heads and anime villains? If this is anything, it’s about exhaustion. I’m tired of thinking about my teeth and worrying about my teeth. I’m tired of being embarrassed. Tired of being scared.

Vince finishes his last snap and drops the guide onto a tray. When he turns away, I slowly uncurl my fingers from the arms of the chair and realize I’ve been holding on so tight that my hands ache. I crane my neck to watch over his shoulder as he pulls up all my X-rays on the computer — the panoramic scan, the individual shots — and I’m ashamed of the crooked, broken version of me displayed on the screen.

“So,” I ask him, forcing out a fake laugh, a false casualness, “is it the worst you’ve ever seen?”

And for a second, Vince doesn’t answer. Then he turns and looks me straight in the eyes.

“No,” he says. “Not even close.”

Before he leaves the exam room, Vince puts a blood-pressure cuff on me and hits a couple of buttons, making it inflate. When the machine is done, it reads 155 over 107.

“It’s okay,” I tell him. “I’m just a little nervous. I’ll be okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

But I’m really not sure at all.

My Life

Billy Joel, 52nd Street

So here’s a funny thing: Twice while I sit in the chair, in that room, my nightmare, two different doctors ask me for my story.

It’s actually the first thing they ask — before they look at my X-rays, my teeth, anything. The story is important to them. It means everything.

Dr. Joe is first. He comes in smiling (he’s always smiling) and sits down, pats me on the leg, and says, “So let’s talk a little bit. Tell me how you ended up here. What’s your story?”

No dentist has ever asked me that before. None of them have ever cared.

Dr. Joe says, “Tell me everything.”

So I do. I tell him about the tooth my son knocked out. I tell him about the time I broke a tooth at four in the afternoon the day before Thanksgiving and found a dentist who basically shaped a new one for me by hand out of dental Bondo for a hundred bucks. She made it so quickly that she left an imprint of her thumbnail in the back. She told me it would last a couple days — enough to get me through the holiday provided I didn’t, you know, bite down on anything — but it’s been four years now and I still have it.

I tell him all about Dr. Two Boats when I was a kid and how years later, now grown, I found myself back in my hometown with a dental emergency — an abscess that started out hurting bad and then just rose and rose in waves of pain that had me on the floor. I rode it out for two days, hoping that if I could just tough it out long enough, the pain would go away.

Only it didn’t, and on the third day, it finally became too much for me. I borrowed money and went looking for a dentist, but Dr. Two Boats was the only one I knew, so I dragged myself back there, just wanting him to make the pain stop.

Motherfucker told me he couldn’t do anything for me. Wrote me a scrip for hydrocodone pills. Shuffled me out the door.

Dr. Joe listens to the whole story. He listens with his entire body, nodding, wincing, shaking his head.

I say, “So anyway, I don’t like dentists.”

And Dr. Joe says he’s sorry. For all of it. “We see this all the time,” he says. “That kind of thing — someone causing us pain so close to our brain? That sticks with us. Especially when we’re young. It’s scary. And then that same seven-year-old is who comes walking into this office 40 years later.”

Dr. Joe has me sit back and open. He pokes around a little in my mouth, then sends for the second dentist, Chintan Patel, who does the same thing — asks me my story, listens, apologizes, then says not to worry. That they got this. That they can fix what I’ve spent 40 years ruining.

Pick Up the Pieces

Average White Band, AWB

I finally get out of the chair, go back, and sit with Dr. Joe and Dr. Patel. They have all my X-rays up on the screen and go over them one at a time, tooth by tooth, explaining what can be done and what can’t. Dr. Patel gives his recommendation, and then Dr. Joe gives his. They’re essentially the same (which makes Dr. Joe happy), and together, they lay out the options for me.

We talk about bonding and dentures and crowns and implants. Dr. Patel tells me about how, back in the day, everything was about saving the tooth. “Heroic measures” is the phrase he uses, which, okay, is maybe a little dramatic, but I feel like we’ve been through some stuff. That we’re in this together now. So I just nod.

Today, things are different, he explains. There are better solutions for broken teeth, for the ones beyond saving. So we talk about extraction and healing times, how the post of an implant has to be mounted into healthy bone, so they have this thing where they can convince your jaw to grow new bone when a tooth is pulled — to grow faster than the soft tissue can close the hole.

Dr. Joe tells me about all the quickie operations out there now. Entire industries built around an assembly-line-style extraction-and-implant program. They take out all your teeth at once, put in four posts on the top and bottom, fill your mouth with brand-new teeth like white billboards on a pole. One size fits all. And they do it in a day.

Dr. Joe doesn’t do that. He gets the attraction, but he doesn’t believe in the model. He wants to build a smile over time. One that will last.

“Our teeth are the one part of our bodies that can’t heal themselves,” he says. “And we don’t get a third set. We really should. The ones we have, our adult teeth, were only made to last us about 45 years. Fifty-five? That was the life expectancy. So we see a lot of people presenting the way you do now. You’re a little ahead of the curve, but not by much.”

He takes me around the office to meet people and show off some of what he can do today, what he might be able to do tomorrow. He tells me how he wants to fill his practice with the best doctors in the country — the top grads. But these kids, he says, they want a place with all the newest toys. So he bought all the toys — the panoramic scanner, the 3-D modeling software. He shows me a plastic probe with twin HD cameras in the tip that can take a magnified version of what’s happening inside someone’s mouth and throw the image up, live, on a screen right in front of that patient. His doctors don’t have to tell people they have a cavity; they can show them.

In another room, a man is having a crown made. Vince is there, his hands in the guy’s mouth, and Dr. Joe and I are standing by the top of the guy’s head. On a screen, Dr. Joe shows me the 3-D map of the patient’s mouth, including the abutment (the tooth stump) that’s been prepared, and then the computer model of the crown they’re going to make. He shows it to me in real time, spins it around, adjusts the color, making tweaks for how the bite falls, where the other teeth touch.

Then we go to another room, maybe 20 steps away, where a crown is being milled in a five-axis CAD/CAM lathe. Dr. Joe hands me a block of pure zirconium, maybe an inch on a side, so I can weigh it in my hand.

“This is what goes into the machine,” he says. What comes out 15 minutes later is a tooth, as perfect as a computer can make it.

Next to the lathe is a small furnace, about the size of a coffeemaker. It fires at about 3,000 degrees to sinter the crowns — tempering the zirconium to its final hardness. One is coming out while we stand there, glowing pale orange.

Once upon a time, Dr. Joe tells me, all crowns and bridges had to be made by technicians in labs that did nothing else. All day, every day, just making teeth. In his office, he would often paint the final product by hand, with a brush and stains, to match the patient’s teeth. He would fit it, smooth it, shave it down. There was an art to it, absolutely. The process took weeks.

Now? An hour. You come to the office, have the abutment prepared, go out, get a drink or something, walk around Rittenhouse Square, then come back and have your new tooth installed. It’s like getting a tire changed. The glowing crown coming out of the sintering furnace? It’s for the guy we were standing with a few minutes ago.

There’s nothing about what Dr. Joe, Dr. Patel and the rest of the dentists here can do that isn’t amazing. There’s nothing that isn’t borderline miraculous compared to the bare fingers and sadism of Dr. Two Boats.

Standing in the hallway, Dr. Joe says, “Look. Story aside, you should really come back. I know we could help you. We could give you your smile back.”

And it’s tempting. It really is. But ultimately, this is just a story. And I’m just a writer. The price tag on the work I’d need done? About the cost of a new luxury car. Six months or a year of visits. I say thanks, and that I’ll think about it. That I’ll be in touch. But I won’t be. Not this year, anyway. Maybe someday.

As I ride down in the elevator, though — as I walk through the lobby and out onto Walnut Street — it occurs to me that for the first time in decades, my calculations are strictly logistical. I’m thinking about time, money and commitment — three things I’m perpetually short on. But I’m not making decisions based on fear. I don’t know whether it was telling my story or having a plan or seeing the possibilities or just being told that I wasn’t too far gone to fix, but I feel better. Dr. Joe might have been absolutely right when he said it was the seven-year-old me who walked into his office three hours ago, heart hammering, dizzy with anxiety. But that’s not who’s walking out again.

I put my headphones on, pull up Laura’s playlist, and cue up Gerry Rafferty singing “Baker Street.” I don’t need it anymore, but that doesn’t really matter.

It’s just a great goddamn song.

Looking for a great Philly dentist? Check out our list of the top Philadelphia dentists here.

Published as “The Molar Report” in the March 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.