Over the last few weeks I have been using my own lived experience as a survivor activist, working with The University of Bristol, Bristol Dental School and activists Viv Gordon, Patricia Debney and Hazel Larkin to coproduce research ‘Improving Access to Oral Health Services for Adult Survivors of Child Sex Abuse.’ It has been a wonderful and empowering project to be part of, beautifully and safely held by all, and I’m excited by the change already on the horizon. Many survivors (including myself) find accessing dentistry almost impossible and I look forward to the day in which survivors’ needs are recognised. We can be perceived as ‘nervous’ patients but this is not the case. We are traumatised by our experiences of abuse and going to the dentist can be triggering and re-traumatising, leaving many of us avoidant. The fault does not lie with us for not being able to ‘overcome our fear’, it lies with a system that doesn’t (yet) understand and accommodate our needs. Many thanks to Brigstow Institute and Bristol and Weston Hospital Charity for funding such valuable and vital research, and to Viv for setting this ball in motion.
This is my response to one of the creative writing tasks from the workshops. We were asked what we thought ‘Dentists need to know.’
Dentists need to know that my mouth tells a story. The story of my life. The story of me.
Dentists need to know that my mouth can’t tell this story with words, as the words are trapped in my heart and stuck in my throat. Words choke me. My mouth wants to tell you but it can’t.
There are shadows in my mouth. The nightmares crawled inside many years ago, who’s to say when. I might have been seven, six, four or one. My mouth was too small. That’s for sure.
Dentists need to know when I show them my mouth, I’m baring my soul. I’m letting them in as I lie on my back and I’m as vulnerable as can be. I want them to hear my story but they can’t because the silence is deafening. Their blue-gloved fingers will search and prod and probe and hurt and I’ll stay still and lie back and say nothing at all. I won’t make a sound. I’ll retreat, fade away and go very small, inside my head and they won’t know and I’ll endure. I’ll endure it because that’s what we do. We put up and shut up and shut down.
Dentists need to know their face isn’t the first to come so close. Close enough for me to hold my breath. So close that I might die. That private and sacred spaces have been invaded before. For my own good. Because I was told to accept it and I because I had no voice. They need to know all senses are submerged. I see nothing but face. Hear nothing but instruments, cold metal on cold trays. Voices. Breathing. Mine, his, theirs. My hands grip a chair. I taste blood and spit. I swallow fear but there’s too much. It is drowning me. Shame gives it a helping hand.
Dentists need to know they’ll read my teeth like Braille but my body will tell the story – my frozen, sweating and shaking self. They’ll see it in my eyes and comment on the tension in my jaw. They will see the teeth that I grind. The build-up of plaque, and enamel eroded in my desperate quest to release the darkness. They will observe gums, unhealthy because of cigarettes and wine and not enough visits to the dentist but they won’t understand. They will be reading another language. A language incomprehensible. They can’t understand. I won’t be able to translate for them because I will have disappeared. They’ll tell me what they think my mouth is saying: Unhealthy. Lazy. Should have come sooner. I know, but I lost my way and the shadows stopped me and now I am losing myself, in the dentist’s chair.
© Sophie Olson