Chomping At The Bit: When Hidden Anxiety Is Written All Over Your Face

He called it “achievement anxiety” – that thing I suffered from. He was one of the most delusional assholes I ever dated, but he did get that right.

Achievement Anxiety: the tension that underlies most moments of the day due to the core belief that in order to be valuable (and loved), one must accomplish a certain undefined number of things to a particularly high standard.

Generally, what those things are and whether or not they’re accomplished, has little to no effect on the degree of anxiety or the person’s relief from such. If not remediated with full effort, the signs and symptoms of achievement anxiety become manifest in seemingly unrelated things. Teeth, for example. Had I realized that a week ago, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so surprised by my visit to the dentist.

With six hours to kill in La Paz last Thursday, I decided I should see a dentist about the inflammation near my gum – and while I was at it, get my first cleaning in I don’t know how many years. A friend’s sister gave me the number, and Noel and I walked the ten blocks to his office. His office: photos and figurines of motorcycles and their accompanying paraphernalia, paintings of Mayan deities, an airplane propeller had been fitted into the metal door that lead from the waiting room to the examination room. A 60-some year old man greeted us in a Hawaiian shirt. These were good signs.

He took one look at my mouth and asked, “How old are you?”.

“Thirty-five,” I responded.


“I had no problems with my teeth until my first cavity about ten years ago, but normally my teeth are good,” I blabbered away in Spanish.

“Yes. This pain is from your wisdom tooth. You have plenty of space for it to come in, but you’re biting too much and it’s causing the inflammation.”

“Qué?” Biting too much? 

“You need to relax. You have so much tension in your jaw. It’s causing you to bite down when you sleep.”

This came as a surprise. I’ve never known myself to clench my teeth in my sleep.

The dentist turned and took a laminated card from the table, which he handed to me.

“This is you,” he said.

The card had the picture of a skeleton. In place of the skull was an elephant, the weight of which was causing the torso to cave in. The elephant was divided up into sections labeled with words like “anger”, “insecurity”, “loss”.

“You carry too much…”

“Stress,” I cut in.

“Emotions,” he responded.

“I don’t like to use the word stress. When you say stress, you pull a blanket over your head and that’s it. You need to name the emotions. When you name them, you can work with them.”

I looked at him sideways. Who is this guy? I’ve never had a psychological screening at a dental cleaning!

Dr. Castillo continued with the cleaning, using an ultrasonic pic which sounded like someone taking an angle grinder to my ivories. Yeah…that’s gonna help me relax.

Next, he pulled a flimsy, paper magazine from the table. It was that type of cheap, non-glossy print that informed you it had been mass produced as a free handout. He covered the title of the publication with his right hand, as if to make sure I didn’t see it.

Oh, that is so a Jehova’s Witness magazine! I thought.

I was so caught off guard with the fact that I was being presented with a religious publication during a dental cleaning that it took me a minute to decipher the words he was pointing to with his left hand: “Has hecho tus paces?”

Have you made your peace?

Given the decor that surrounded me (the dental chair looked directly at a painting of what appeared to be a depiction of a Mayan tooth extraction), I was fairly certain this wasn’t an attempt at conversion, but that the good doctor was simply using a tool to make a point.

The cleaning moved on to scraping and polishing, interspersed with lots of spitting and wiping drool off my chin, all while discussing the effects of emotions on the body.

“If you don’t work with your emotions it will lead to tension in your shoulders (check), headaches (check – 20 years running), popping in your ears (ditto), and loss of hearing.”

Sweet. It looks like I’m well on my way to being deaf.

“Five things you need to do: mejorar (to make better) your sleep, your skin, your digestion, your elimination, and your attitude,” Dr. Castillo instructed me.

Well, I thought, my skin looks pretty damn good, I’d say. Digestion is good, and elimination is great, thanks to my daily dose of Natural Calm poo-powder. Sleep? I get plenty, though maybe not deep enough. Attitude – it’s all about attitude.

He then pulled out a set of dentures. “Do you see this?” he asked running his finger over the gum that sat above the top set of molars. “Feel it. This is how your gums should be.”

I ran my finger over it. The gum was planar – mostly smooth, flat.

“Now feel yours.”

I did as instructed.

“Holy God!” I cried. My gums had a huge, pointy ridge to them, right in the middle. “What is that??”

“Bone. That is your body’s response to the emotions you carry. It builds up bone as a way of protection.”

I looked at him wide-eyed – completely rattled that my body had been so freakishly malformed unbeknownst to me for what had likely been years.

“Raquel, you need time for you. You come first – no one else.” (Funny, Noel would laugh if he heard that, as I seem to do a pretty excellent job of putting me first). “Wake up half an hour earlier, or go to bed half an hour later and spend that time on only you. No one else can do it for you.”

As I got up to leave I inspected the poster on his wall, which labeled all the teeth – each tooth distinct and serving a particular purpose. Taken on their own, the molars, I noticed, looked like dancing starfish – with their roots in the air, wavin’ ’em around like they just don’t care. A bit like Spongebob’s Patrick frolicking about in tighty-whities, actually.

That is how my teeth ought to feel: with space and freedom. 

That is how I want my heart to feel, I thought. Like a Fruit-of-the-Loom-clad, dancing starfish. 


  2 comments for “Chomping At The Bit: When Hidden Anxiety Is Written All Over Your Face

  1. cat
    April 20, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Only in Baja!

  2. April 20, 2016 at 10:21 pm

    Good Grief!! I wish my dentist was more like that – it would at least be a lot more fun and interesting! Now you’ve had a few days to digest all this, does it still make sense?

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