Nitrous oxide, synesthesia & time distortion.Posted: June 3, 2013
When I was a kid – maybe 10 or 12 – I wrote the first sentence of a novel in a green, college-ruled note-book: “We are descended from witches and weres and vampires.”
I imagined the line – and its ensuing conversation – taking place in a homey, kitchen, redolent with the smell of melted paraffin, hot sugar, and chokecherry juice. I imagined the speaker was a pink-cheeked, soft-skinned, elderly woman with a sweat-damp Scandinavian braid wrapped around her head, and that she was speaking to her sturdy, plain-faced, middle-aged daughter, who was concerned about an uncharacteristic and terrible act committed by her own wild, wayward grandchild.
I still have that notebook (even though I’ve otherwise conquered my heritage of hoardishness.) And I’m still writing that novel.
Well, kinda. Not one of my manuscripts contain that specific line, but all of them are meditations on that basic concept – the idea that normal life (that which is familiar) is a matter of situation, circumstance and perception. Embedded in that line – at least for me – is the realization that life itself is magical and mysterious and that we spend far too much time – as individuals, as families, as communities, as a society – pretending that it isn’t. My writing has always been about asserting that “normal” life is an unhealthy, cult-ish state of being, and that pursuing the norm – or more accurately, denying the magical – is like drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.
You’d think, then, that I’d be able to bring that conviction into the real world, but I am as vulnerable as everyone else to getting sucked in to mundane. Lately life has thrown a lot of its most distracting normal-world challenges at me: financial stress, work-schedule conflicts, eldercare needs, and parenting decisions that will affect THE REST OF MY SON’S LIFE. The weather hasn’t been helping. I can’t remember when Minnesota has had a longer, colder, wetter, drearier winter and spring. Consequently, I’ve been too tired (wound up, stressed out, bone-chilled, etc.) to taste the contents of the cup I’ve been drinking from.
Who’d-a-thunk that an emergency visit to the dentist would be my antidote?
First you must know that I have a full-blown dental phobia. I don’t know (remember) why. It’s not like there have been a ton of opportunities for this phobia to take root and grow. I’ve been mostly lucky. In an effort to avoid ever visiting the dentist, I am religious about dental hygiene, and have developed a high pain tolerance. But one can only do so much. When my entire face recently swelled up and I could no longer eat, I made an appointment.
The first visit was quick. An x-ray revealed that my eyetooth was the problem and would require a root canal. I left the dentist’s office with a prescription for antibiotics to bring the swelling down, and a future appointment on the books.
Something else you should know is that I weep when I go to the dentist. I don’t mean that I sob, or thrash about, or make a scene – I just … leak tears. I can have a full and lucid conversation about the required treatment, and I can quietly submit to whatever needs to be done, but I cannot stop leaking. This is disconcerting to dentists. In fact, this makes them very solicitous. When I tell a dentist that I will require nitrous oxide no matter what the cost, they are eager to give me as much as I want. And they are confident that I will want A LOT.
When the day came to perform the root canal, my new dentist was ready with plenty of laughing gas. As I settled in under the mask it occurred to me to ask if one could overdose on nitrous oxide. He laughed and said no. I relaxed as much as I could, closed my eyes, and started to do the same kind of deep breathing that helped me get through two drug-free births and every crisis I’ve had in the past 27 years.
I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t feel much pain when he injected me with the first of several shots of Novocaine. I remember him telling me that after he finished the series of shots, he would wait for a while before starting the root canal, so that the numbing agent could take full effect. Then I drifted.
I have a recurring dream in which I first run, then bound through a meadow. In the beginning, it’s a lovely dream but then I realize that it’s like I have springs in my feet, and that each time I return to the ground, my rebound is more powerful – and I can’t stop going higher and higher. It becomes dizzying, then terrifying, as I plunge from the sky toward the ground.
(Yes, I know that I have control issues.)
While breathing my nitrous, I was reminded of that dream and I tensed up … repeatedly. Knowing that I didn’t want to actually feel what the dentist was doing, and confident that he was a professional who would eventually and appropriately stop the flow of the blessed gas, I resisted the urge to struggle back to a more conscious state. I became aware of a sound, like that of music being played on crystal glasses. I concentrated on that sound for a while, until I realized it was probably the noise of the drill as the dentist worked, then I tried to ignore it. Even so, I was aware when the pitch of the sound climbed higher, then higher again. Each time the pitch shifted I felt my breathing speed up and become more shallow. It was too much. I pushed hard toward the surface of my mind.
When I opened my eyes, both the dentist and his assistant were bent over me, their masked faces inches above mine. The assistant was repeating my name and saying, “it’s okay, you’re fine.”
The dentist was wiping tears from the corner of my eye with a gloved finger. He said, “There you are!” I could see relief in his eyes as he straightened up.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I took in the situation, then asked, “I hyperventilated, didn’t I?”
“Yes. Yes you did.”
“How far are we?” I asked. “How much is done?”
The two of them exchanged looks. There was a pause. Then the dentist finally said, “Nothing. We’ve done nothing except give you the Novocaine.”
“But I heard the drill …”
“No. There was no drill.”
We determined together that I probably didn’t need quite so much nitrous oxide. I decided to keep my eyes open for the remainder of the procedure, so that I wouldn’t sink so far into my own mind. Before I gave myself over to the gas, I heard the dentist reassuring his assistant that such bad reactions were rare, but normal.
Once the gas was restarted, I realized that I could breath deeply until I felt my fingers tingling, but then I needed to take a break. Eventually I figured out how to take in just enough gas (how to hypnotize myself just enough) to stay somehow above what was going on in my mouth. I maintained a nice semi-conscious state, but I had no idea how much time was passing until my cell phone’s alarm chimed. (I have reminder alarms set for various tasks through my day.) When the alarm sounded, I was relieved to know that I’d been at the office for more than an hour – at least this time, I thought, they are making progress.
We got through it.
Except we didn’t, really. Toward the end of the procedure, I realized they were taking an awful lot of x-rays. Though they reassured me there was nothing wrong, I knew something wasn’t right.
It turns out that the root of my eyetooth was too deep for the dentist’s tools to reach. Apparently my “fang” is half-again as long as an average eyetooth, and no tool in the dentist’s arsenal could get to the bottom of it. (We are descended from witches and weres and vampires.) He ended up putting in a temporary filling and referring me to an endodontist – a specialist in root canals.
So it all happened again a week later. In that visit, I knew how to self-regulate my nitrous so I didn’t hyperventilate (nor terrify a young dental assistant), and my mind converted the pain I felt into an overpowering taste of copper pennies dissolving in my mouth – rather than the sound of crystal glasses singing.
Now that my fang is fine, I’m grateful for the experience. I needed to have my consciousness altered a little. Going to the dentist broke the spell “normal life” had on me. Since then, I’ve finished the Lizzy novel. (I’m editing and revising now.) Pretty soon I will be seeking first-readers/critics, then picking up on the hotel novel that I started for NaNoWriMo.
Apparently, I needed to be reminded that the mind can translate its experiences into something strange and interesting, yet still reflective of reality. I also needed to be reminded that time is subjective. The first two-thirds of Lizzy’s novel was written over more than a decade, but was finished in a matter of weeks. The hotel novel took shape in 30 days.
I’m curious to see what happens next.