One bright mid-morning, in or around the late spring of 2001, I was at work when I noticed that one of my back teeth was tingling slightly. It was my final molar on the upper left hand side, and I described the feeling at the time as being similar to the feeling in your stomach when you are anticipating something nice, like a birthday party or a holiday.
The odd tingly feeling remained for the rest of the day. I ignored it for the most part, dismissing it as a curiosity. Later that evening, after dinner, the feeling became stronger. Again, apart from vaguely wondering what it was, I ignored it. As it got worse, I took a paracetamol and a tot of medicinal gin, assuming that it would be gone by morning.
The following morning, I woke up in the most agonising pain I have ever experienced. A powerful, intense throb was emanating from that tooth, and I could feel that the roof of my mouth was beginning to swell up. Paracetamol could not even take the edge off, and I barely noticed the effects of the Disprin I also took.
Having let work know that I had “toothache” (that word does not even begin to encompass the agony I was suffering. I felt like a fraud for even saying it), I called the dentist.
The receptionist informed me that the dentist had no available appointments for the day and I would have to wait until tomorrow. It was at this point that I burst into tears on the phone, and I could have hugged her when she said I could pop in for a five-minute emergency appointment that afternoon.
The rest of the day is a blur of ineffective painkillers and (umm) a bit more gin. Swilling the stuff round my mouth seemed to give me a couple of seconds’ mild relief. The pain of an infected root is exquisite. It fills your head with a sharp, steely blue and constant agony, which throbs and throbs and is inescapable. My ears were singing and it felt like I could barely see. I became furious with people walking down the street in front of my window, because they were not suffering as I was.
Finally the time for the appointment arrived and I staggered to the dentists’ in a haze of confusion and pain. He had a quick look and, yes, as suspected, I had an infection in the root of my tooth.
Had he been an NHS dentist, I have no doubt that I would now have a gap where that tooth once was. However, he was not. He prescribed me some antibiotics, and then after a couple of mind-buggeringly painful x-rays, said that he would save the tooth. It would take a total of four hours, and cost a stupid amount of money. Had my mouth not been the centre of my own private universe of pain at the time, I would have kissed him. I would have paid anything to make the pain go away, and was not inclined to lose a tooth if I did not have to.
The antibiotics superseded the gin late the same evening and, three days later and almost normal again, I turned up at the surgery.
I had two hours’ worth of lying in the dentist’s chair with all manner of bizarre devices being poked and prodded and drilled into my tooth. At one point he removed the dead nerve and showed me. It was a sad little scrap of grey, looking more like a dab of damp cigarette ash than anything else. He packed the new cavity with what smelled and tasted like bleach, and sent me, numb and drooling, on my way.
The next appointment was even longer and was accompanied by the soundtrack to Bridget Jones’s Diary. To this day I cannot listen to a single song from that album without lapsing into a flashback. I could only speculate about what was being put into my mouth and why. The dentist spoke only to the nurse, asking in low urgent tones for various pieces of obscure dental equipment. I do know that at one point I was sporting a lip spreader and dental dam to prevent some of the more exotic chemicals running down my throat.
I had three long pins inserted into the tooth and up into my jaw to hold it in place, and then a hefty dollop of amalgam on top to keep everything together. Somewhere I still have the x-ray image of these three pins, as a memento.
I have never, ever forgotten the pain.