We’ve only been back to our dental office for a few weeks but the anxiety hit me like an eighteen-wheeler last Friday. COVID-19 was a shock, then a rest, then an eye-opener. We went back as newly revived dentists, ready to go back to work to do what we do best but even better. I spoke to so many of you, eager and excited about new changes and improvements you were going to create as a result of what’s happened. Some, if not all of you were worried, rightfully so, about how to pay for it all moving forward. With the new regulations, and many patients reluctant to come back due to fear of transmission, our businesses would inevitably be impacted and slowed. But how much? How much slower, and how much of an impact? The unknown was out there, floating above our heads, bringing a cloud over each of us as we tried to bring back our staff and attempt a level of normalcy.

I will admit, I didn’t have the cloud as we opened. I didn’t have the fear or worry, and I was excited to go back and do all the new things I wanted to implement. After all, I spent the first 25 years of being a dentist doing things pretty much the way I thought I was supposed to, so this time, the next 25 should be the way I wanted to do them. No?

My happy fog lasted exactly 3 weeks. One thing, one simple thing triggered it to come back full out. One patient said the one thing I used to hear all the time. The thing that I got used to hearing and dealing with in the past. 25 years of that thing, day in and day out, became like a chronic pain in your side, you have it, you are used to it, you live with it, and you numb it in whatever way works for you. But when COVID shut us all down, and I got past the shock and the fear and started to plan a new future, the pain began to drift away. Day by day, drip by drip, it disappeared, and I forgot I had even had it before.

When I got back to work, the first couple of weeks of patients were just amazing. Understanding, chatty, happy to be back and willing to put up with any changes or new things we implemented so it seemed like I had a bright future and could do what I loved doing in a way that’s good for me as well. It felt like a win-win all around. My patients were getting more attention and better care, my staff could slow down and work at a better pace and work better as a team, and it looked like even at a slower pace, we could manage to do this financially despite the increasing costs of supplies. I felt content.

And then the patient last Thursday came in and said it. Said that thing, the thing that I had forgotten about. And as his words floated around me, I felt nauseous and dizzy. I got him numb and walked out for a minute to catch my breath. Might as well check the emails. Bad mistake. An email from a woman scheduled next week for a 4-hour appointment for a bunch of restorative work, after I spent over an hour and a half on a consult going over everything with her including cost, time, urgency and consequences of waiting any longer, says that same thing. The thing that he just said. And those two same things, combined, brought the pain back. That pain that I had forgotten about, that lived inside me for years and caused me severe IBS and anxiety at times, now it was back in full force. But I bet you didn’t know that for anyone with chronic pain that they are used to, if you take the pain away and remind them of what it’s like to be without it, if you then introduce the same pain pack, it feels ten times worse than before. And so I was immobilized. Numb and frozen, same as my patient’s upper left quadrant waiting for me to return. What happens when you are frozen, immobilized but need to move? Ask a person who has been paralyzed to stand up and walk? They can’t. How do I continue to do what I do, how do I “stand up” when I can’t?

The chronic pain is back. The anxiety is present and I can’t see myself being a dentist much longer. People used to ask me why I work so hard and why I always push through no matter what happens, why I do what I do when it seems impossible? It’s just who I am. I built an incredible practice and got to do what I love for 25 years. Can I keep going another 25? Can I keep doing what I love for people who continue to say the “thing”? Day in and day out? Who am I now? Is there an answer to this? Does anyone else out there feel the way I do? Or am I again, utterly alone in the world?