Autistic and Afraid of the Dentist

The title says it all, really.

As a kid, I was always really anxious about going to the dentist. I mean, it’s a person poking around inside your mouth with sharp instruments and criticising you while you’re completely unable to respond, clench your teeth, or even swallow. If that isn’t a nightmare, I don’t know what is. It was always a traumatic experience that ended in tears. So – of course – I needed braces and in order to get braces, I had to have dental surgery to remove two teeth and attach a little chain to another to gradually pull it into it’s correct place. That was attached to the braces, which was already a painful experience in itself. It’s also worth pointing out that during that surgery, another tooth was damaged and I’ve had trouble with it ever since. I’d stress about the next appointment for months and every check up was a distressing, exhausting ordeal. So, with all of that, I was pretty anti-dentist.

The Autism diagnosis changed things: people started to understand why it was such a big deal for me and new options became available. At the time, I’d been seeing a friend of my Mum’s who was a dentist and going to her practice, just to try and get used to the whole thing. But, as she worked privately, it really wasn’t a long-term plan and I was dreading the moment we’d have to find a new person and start all over again. But when we told her about the diagnosis, she told us about a specialist dental clinic, one that deals with all sorts of disabilities, and said that she would refer me.

Going to this place was an entirely different experience for me. The dentist and dental nurse were absolutely lovely and I’ve had the two of them ever since the first appointment. It never feels rushed and in that first appointment, we spent most of it talking, some about my dental history but mostly about me: my music, my pets, and so on. I almost forgot that I was at the dentist. At the end, she spent about a minute looking at my teeth (with only the mirror and nothing pointy) and then we were done. It had been okay; I could relax.

Over the following appointments, we took baby steps. She introduced me to all the instruments and let me touch them so I knew what they’d feel like. Then she’d use them on my teeth, one by one, explaining what she was doing and giving me lots of opportunities to stop. It was such a big deal to have people listen to my anxieties and take me seriously. I was and I am so grateful to them.

It’s been slow going with many freak outs along the way. The need for a filling threw a spanner in the works because I really wasn’t ready for all of that. But the crisis was averted when they referred me for a general anaesthetic – just as well as I ended up needing a tooth removed. Obviously, general anaesthetics aren’t a long-term solution to dentist anxiety but given the progress I’d been making, we all decided that it was the right choice. And once that was over, we got back on track.

I’ve been going there for two and a half years now and my appointment last week was definitely a milestone. I let the dentist clean and polish all of my teeth all in one go; no breaks, no anaesthesia, no nothing. It was all me. That is HUGE! I haven’t been able to do that in years and apart from the three-hour nap I needed afterwards, I feel pretty good about it. It wasn’t fun but my anxiety didn’t get to an unmanageable level and I got through it; I’m really proud of that. Really, really proud.

There’s a long way left to go but it actually feels like, one day, I’ll get to a place where I can go to the dentist and have a filling and it not be that big of a deal. Imagine that?! What a thought! I am so, so grateful to my dentist and dental nurse for taking such good care of me.

Anyway, I just wanted to make this post because I know that there are a lot of people – with Autism, with mental health problems – who really struggle with going to the dentist in the same way I do, and this route isn’t a well known one. But there are options other than just forcing yourself to go. So, if the dentist is a problem for you, please talk to your dentist, your doctor, and consult google. It shouldn’t be so hard and it doesn’t have to be.

The Weird World of Anxiety Dreams

I have experienced anxiety dreams, in one form or another, for most of my life. I don’t know very much about the science behind dreaming but as I understand it, we tend to have anxiety dreams when we’re trying to cope with stressful stuff, or they are our brain’s way of telling us that we need to deal with something. Some of the common ones include losing something important, finding yourself naked in public, being chased, and scenarios involving the end of the world. I have had all of these at one point or another so I thought I’d write down the ones that stick out most in my mind and put them out into the world. Maybe some of you guys can relate.

The first anxiety dream I remember having was about being trapped in a car. The car was sitting at the top of a hill, on a street I knew well, and then it suddenly began to roll down towards the busy main road. I was stuck inside, panicking and unable to make it stop. I always woke up before I reached the bottom but I can still feeling that suffocating fear. I think these started when I was about five or six and I had them many times for several years. Then, when I was a teenager, they changed slightly. Instead of being stuck in a moving car, I was suddenly expected to drive somewhere without knowing how, without ever having had a lesson. I don’t know why but the expectation that I could was definitely there. I would get in the car and attempt to drive and while I was initially successful, it was just a matter of time before something went wrong. This is apparently a very common anxiety dream, which isn’t surprising given that most of us hate feeling out of control.

My most common recurring dream is one where my teeth start falling out. There are a couple of different variations of this: sometimes my teeth just become wobbly and slowly fall out one by one, and sometimes they just disintegrate in my mouth and I’m spitting out fragments of enamel. They’re incredibly vivid and I’m always convinced that they’re real. I wake up breathless and disorientated. I have no idea where this one comes from or whether it means anything. I don’t subscribe to the theory that when you dream, specific things have specific meanings, but it seems pretty likely that feeling out of control in a dream links to feeling out of control in some part of your life. I still don’t know what teeth are supposed to represent though.

There’s another one that I’ve only started having recently. I’m walking into college, heading to a Maths lesson when I remember that I haven’t been to a Maths lesson in months and therefore will be expected to hand in months of late homework which I do not have. I could just not go but the exams are getting ever closer and I need to learn it all. My anxiety is just starting to spiral when I wake up and it takes me a while to untangle myself from it. If I were going to guess the meaning, I’d say it had something to do with my fear of falling behind and not being good enough. And getting into trouble. But that’s not a big leap to make.

I don’t know how anxiety dreams fit in to the picture when you live with an anxiety disorder, when you live with significant levels of anxiety every single day. Does it mean that the level of anxiety necessary to trigger the dreams is just higher? Maybe every dream we have is an anxiety dream but we only remember a fraction of them… I don’t know what the answers are. But I thought I’d put my experience out there and see if anyone relates to it. If any of you have had anxiety dreams, I’d love to hear how similar or different they are to mine.

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BPD and Feeling Abandoned

Feeling abandoned is a big thing when it comes to Borderline Personality Disorder. And events as everyday as someone not immediately responding to a text can trigger that feeling. The smallest slight can be incredibly upsetting and anything bigger can feel devastating. It’s never ending and exhausting. And with the fear of being abandoned hanging over you, relationships (of any kind) can be very stressful. They can feel like a waiting game, wondering how long it will take for the other person to give up on you.

As someone with BPD, I feel emotions very strongly and when something upsetting happens, it feels like I’ve been hit by a massive wave and it’s all I can do to find my way back to the surface. The emotion overwhelms me and there’s no room for logical reasoning. It doesn’t matter what else is going on; all my energy is taken up trying to process all of that feeling. It can take weeks to recover and I feel more fragile each time.

And what makes it more difficult is the fact that it’s not completely irrational; there is ‘evidence’ to support the fear. People have abandoned me in the past, both voluntarily and involuntarily, so whenever I try and talk myself out of the panic, my BPD lays out all these examples, ‘proving’ to me that I will always be abandoned. It’s an exhausting cycle.

I’m not going to go through my history of feeling abandoned, example-by-example, but there is one experience that I want to share. I think it’s too important to leave out. A few years ago, someone really important to me cut ties when I was in the lowest place I’d ever been (something they were aware of). I felt completely abandoned and it had a massive impact on my mental health and view of the world. I was so hurt and so confused and for a long time, those emotions overwhelmed everything. I felt broken. But slowly, that weight lifted. It took two years but I’m finally free of it. And that’s amazing. But it’s not the end of it. That experience has affected me, especially when it comes to my relationships and my anxiety around them. And like I said, it’s hard to talk myself out of that fear when I feel like I’m about to go through all that again.

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while but I wasn’t sure how to frame it, if that makes any sense. But a conversation with one of my best friends brought all of this to the surface.

So let me tell you a story:

One of my best friends had just come back from a trip to the US and was desperate to go back. I was in a pretty fragile place already (dealing with another situation where I felt like I was being abandoned) and watching her plan her next trip abroad felt a lot like she was abandoning me. I didn’t want to say anything and I felt guilty for feeling the way I did: she was building her career and she was so excited and here I was, wanting her to stay. But in the end, I had to say something. We’ve always talked everything through so, even though I was terrified of sounding needy and pathetic, I reached out and told her how I was feeling. She knows a lot about my mental health difficulties so I told her how I struggle with feeling abandoned and that I might need some extra reassurance around her upcoming trip.

(I want to add that although it might sound easy, it wasn’t. Part of me – a big part of me – was convinced that expressing these feelings would be the ‘final straw’ and that she would abandon me on the spot, that I had finally become too much to deal with. This is something that I think is often misunderstood about BPD. This reaction is not because of the other person; it’s because of the BPD. The other person could be the most reliable person in the world. It doesn’t matter. It’s the BPD telling you that everyone will leave, that you’re not enough to make the other person stick around. So defying that and telling my friend how I felt was very, very scary.)

And this is the important bit: how my friend reacted. Instead of telling me I was being ridiculous or brushing off my request, she responded compassionately. She told me not to feel pathetic or guilty, that she understood why I was feeling the way I was. She asked me how she could help, and said that she would do whatever she could to make it easier for me. She said, “I am not going to leave you.”

It was such a relief that I burst into tears. It meant (and still does mean) so much to me. She validated my feelings, asked me what she could do, and gave me the reassurance I needed. I wish everyone responded this way. Perhaps ironically for a condition with such close links to invalidation, these feelings often get written off as being oversensitive or overdramatic. And in my experience, that only makes it worse. Things are better now that the important people in my life understand where these feelings come from; before the diagnosis, the only explanation was that I was very sensitive and therefore needed to ‘toughen up’. It was a fault. And that’s what I thought too. But now that we understand it, we know how to handle it, how to approach it.

I will likely need to hear this again and again to combat my fear of being abandoned but that doesn’t minimise the importance of this moment. As I’ve said, change is a series of moments like these, moments I hold very close, like charms on a charm bracelet.

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