I awake screaming as a thousand hob-nailed boots stamp a River Dance along my jaw line. My impacted wisdom tooth has decided to make its presence known for the second time since lockdown. As time slows down and pain increases, I await with shaking fingers poised to dial the dentist’s surgery. The minute it opens, I’m on the line – a toothache junkie desperate for a hit.
But things have changed since I last met my orthodontist dealer on the street corner. No more shiftily sliding a prescription through the car window with no questions asked. No, now I have to be seen in person. No medication without explanation. But this is a good thing, surely? Maybe the dentist can help me get clean? Maybe I won’t need the hard stuff after all?
So off I go to his drug den with its high security. No entrance without prior permission. Instead, a covert phone call is required to announce my presence and allow me to be buzzed into the building, where I sit in desperation with a fellow masked-sufferer. We avoid eye contact. We both know what we’re waiting for.
Finally, I get to see the Boss. He’s heavily disguised in PPE, making it impossible to pick him out in an ID parade. I wait, quivering on the interrogation couch, for his verdict. It’s not good news. ‘That molar is on its way out,’ he warns. ‘But it’s a specialist job for the big guns at Charles Clifford. In the meantime, I can slip you some antibiotics.’ Trembling, I pay up my NHS dues and sneak out in search of a chemist’s where I trade money for my fix and stock up on some hardcore painkillers.
Back home I wait for the big rush. But it never comes. By the time my son and his father arrive back I’m almost psychotic with pain. Grunting Teen pauses on his way back from the fridge to ask ‘What time’s tea?’ When he gets no reply, he deduces from my delirious expression that the situation is serious. ‘Mum, why’s your face swollen?’ he asks. ‘Yes, you do look a bit like the Elephant Man,’ agrees the Nearly-Beloved cheerily.
He’s not so cheery the next morning as my groans have kept him awake half the night. Now instead of helping me quit the habit, he’s scored me some industrial-strength narcotics from his knee-op two years ago. They come with a government warning and a 3-day maximum usage before addiction sets in.
And how easy it is to get addicted as my agony miraculously vanishes and I float through life in a numb, pandemic-anxiety-free haze. Life is great. Until Day 4. The miracle pills run out, the antibiotics fail to kick in and the spiky River Dancers resume their ceaseless jig around my gums, hammering nails into every nerve ending.
There’s no choice, I’ll have to go back and tell them the truth. I’m having a bad trip. What they’ve given me isn’t getting me high. I need the pure stuff coursing through my veins. But on my return the dentist has transformed from dope-peddler to substance-misuse-worker. He’s all concern and compassion. He’s here to help. But I’m already on the grade 1 antibiotics and there’s nothing stronger on offer. The only solution is to go cold turkey at the dental hospital. ‘I’m sorry,’ he tells me, ‘but due to the current crisis, there’s a backlog of patients, and pain doesn’t move you up the waiting list when there are more life-threatening cases to deal with.’ His face falls. He looks sad. Before I know it, he’s telling me that dentistry’s become the forgotten relative of the NHS, that stringent Corona safety measures mean normal procedures take much longer and that, now, instead of saving teeth, he spends more time extracting them.
‘So, can’t you take mine out then?’ I plead. He shakes his head. ‘Too complicated. You need to do business with the men at the top.’ But he offers advice about cleaning and mouthwash, and phones the clinic to bump me up the ranks. Then he packs me off with a virtual hug and an extra supply of antibiotics in the hope they’ll eventually do the trick. And the fact that he’s genuinely concerned about my well-being and doing his best in difficult circumstances does make me feel slightly better.
When I tell the Nearly-Beloved my cure might take months he pales at the thought of more sleepless nights. He makes enquiries. Money is the answer. And we’re lucky to have that option. The refund from our Covid-cancelled holiday in France will pay for private surgery that can be done next week. But will pain or Yorkshire thrift win out?
Spurred on by the caring dentist and the cost of treatment, I embark on a radical rehabilitation programme. I open up about my predicament on Social Media and am immediately overwhelmed by an outpouring of warmth, affection and good wishes. Intervention is no longer needed. Miraculously, the next day, the pain has lessened. I’m in recovery. Loving kindness is the drug that works for me.