I come from a long line of dentists. And I mean looonnggg. Ready? Both of my grandfathers were dentists. My maternal grandfather was also a dental school professor. My father was a dentist and slated to be the President of the Tennessee Dental Association. His only brother, my uncle, is a dentist. Both of my brothers are dentists. My cousin is a dentist. My nephew is currently in graduate school studying to be what? Yes, you guessed it. A dentist. And, of course, my parents met at none other than a dental convention. Hmmm … luck of the draw that all these men (notice – they are all men) have a passion for teeth or is this a sign of family dysfunction and enmeshment? Perhaps another essay for another time.
My father wanted me to join the family heritage and become a dentist. I too could pursue dentistry as a profession and I could be the one that broke the gender glass ceiling. But, no, thank you! I was very clear from a young age that such was not going to be my chosen path.
Before I was of legal working age, Dad had me assisting at his office during the summer. I think my official title was “Go-For.” You know … get this, go for that. I cleaned dental instruments, organized trays for the next patients, restocked supplies and did whatever other grunt work nobody else wanted to do. It was enough hands-on experience for me to get a sense of what the day-to-day life of a dentist involved. Don’t get me wrong. As a pre-teen, I loved the paycheck. Seven dollars an hour felt like riches! And the flexible hours I had with the boss … well, that was unbeatable. Any afternoon, I could just take off for the movies. But, putting my hands in people’s mouths all day long? Trying to make one-way small talk while the other party was gagging with an open mouth? Having to tolerate the sight of blood? Having to cause all that pain? Having people hate you just because they fear you? Not for me. Nope. Nada. Not even considering that one.
Besides, with all those dentists, I figured this family needed a good shrink. And of course, the rest is history. I am the lone ranger who carved an uncharted vocational path within my family history. But, what has surprised me as my career as a psychotherapist has unfolded over the years, is that perhaps I did choose the same family profession after all.
Like a dentist, folks come to me in pain and want me to “fix” them. And not only do they want me to “fix” them, but they want a cure that is instantaneous and pain-free.
Like a dentist, I too am frequently feared and hated in that in order to heal a wound, I often have to dig under and around it – which can temporarily cause, not only more pain, but the rawness of the unfamiliar. But unlike dentistry, I cannot offer a shot of anasthesia or a dose of laughing gas to aid in this process. Sometimes, it just hurts.
Like a dentist, I teach preventative care. Instead of brushing and flossing, I teach emotional literacy and relational effectiveness. Working my way out of a job is my job.
And like a dentist, I pull a hell of a lot of teeth. In my field, we call it resistance. Folks come in and proclaim they want change. Something in their life is not working – something within them or something or someone outside of them. As we begin the process of uncovering what needs to change and why it has not changed in the past, we often hit Newton’s law of physics – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You mean you want me to do that? You mean you want me to modify that? Heels dig in. The walls of Ft. Knox solidify. Self-protection of the known and the familiar becomes almost impossible to penetrate.
Dr. Suess knew this dilemma. He discussed it in melodic poetry in his classic, Green Eggs and Ham. As a refresher, this annoying little varmint tries to convince the older, wiser creature that if only he would try green eggs and ham, he would love them. The more the seller tries to convince his friend that he really will enjoy the meal, the more the older guy runs for the hills in resistance. But the seller is ever persistent. He skitters optimistically from a boat to a moat to a goat trying convince his friend that he has something that he will enjoy, that he even needs. And of course, out of perhaps sheer exhaustion or at least with the hopes of finally getting rid of this pest, the old guy surrenders. He tastes the goods … and the tide turns. … “Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am. I do so like green eggs and ham.”
Like the annoying Sam-I-Am in Green Eggs and Ham, I am in the position of seduction. Patients come to me for something and yet often, they leave with something more … something they didn’t even know they needed. Unlike the patients that sit in the dental chairs of my kinfolk, my patients are not passive objects who are knocked out, drugged-up and unable to talk back. Yes, it is my job to relieve the pain that brought them to my office, the pain they carry unnecessarily. But, stopping there is not my goal. I want to make them better than ever, better than they ever they knew they could be.
So, if you run into any Dr. Sullivans from the Southland, chances are he is a dentist. And if he is a dentist, chances are he is a relative of mine. That being said, I too am carrying on the family legacy by pulling teeth in my neck of the woods, in a way that I like to do it – by removing character traits and defensive behaviors that are no longer functional and are causing more pain than assistance; by teaching effective and strong tools to obtain the emotional nourishment one needs to sustain the journey; by sharpening a better bite when life demands that one take care of one’s self; and by polishing a healthy smile to flash the world should a moment of joy be uncontainable.