A chilling artifact from the Civil War is a lead bullet with teeth marks in it. It was put between a wounded trooper's teeth when a doctor amputated his leg. Except for a few shots of whiskey, anesthesia didn't exist in battlefield hospitals. Hence the term "bite the bullet." Soldiers had no other recourse.
I've never known such pain. But any pain makes me uncomfortable, which is why — even with my mouth opened wide — I grimace anytime I am under the bright lamp in the chair at my dentist's office. He's skilled at navigating my mouth. But nerve endings are just that, and there sure are a lot of them ending in my teeth and gums. Ouch.
Of late, I've been in the chair every couple of weeks. Age and an overbite have taken a toll on my dental well-being. Thank goodness for Novocain or whatever he uses these days to deaden the landscape in my mouth. He never hurts me.
But after a tooth with a bifurcated root refused to budge for 2 1/2 hours, until the dentist finally extracted it in pieces, I decided enough was enough. Though I had no pain, the discomfort of the process twisted me into knots, as in "I'm not going through that ever again." So when it was time to pull out another bad tooth the other day, I chose nitrous oxide. It's known as "laughing gas." Instead, it made me cry.
I never had breathed it before. In the rush of the next few moments, I was overwhelmed, swept up in an avalanche of fear. What was happening to me? Was I dying? The noises in the room filled my ears with sonic textures I could almost feel. I fixated on a spot on the wall, as if it had a profound meaning I had to know. All at once, I was flying and tumbling. I cried.
"Don't worry. You're just fine. It's OK." From somewhere far away, somehow the dentist's words met my jumbled brain. Just as suddenly, my red-tinged fear turned to the cooler hues of the rainbow; orange was orange, like a sunset. Wonderment was bright yellow turned to gentle green; peace and contentment the bluest of blues. I breathed deep, deeper and asked, "What happened?" I asked even though I couldn't have cared less. I just wanted him to keep that gas coming.
"You felt the loss of control," he said. "You didn't like it."
Then he pulled the tooth. "Sixty percent," he instructed his assistant, and right away I knew that meant something less than the amount of nitrous oxide that had propelled me to places I hadn't been in 18-plus years. It seemed as if the trip was over almost before it began. Darn. I wasn't ready to come back to my earth.
Afterward, I sat in my car in the parking lot, trying to figure out what had just happened. I don't think most people find that getting nitrous oxide is akin to running into a burning bush on a faraway mountainside as Moses did. Then again, they aren't bummed out when the time comes to turn off the gas and go home.
That's why addicts are so different. We use drugs exactly to find a release from whatever bonds us to reality. When we're down, we get high to pick us up off the floor the same way we use substances to push the apex a bit further when the moment is good but not good enough. For either reason or both, we only get beyond where we are to where we thirst to go by losing control of what our minds and our bodies tell us is the truth. Yep. Substances are that potent.
But my tears explain what happens when we've been clean and sober for a while. We take a stout liking to the recovery zone we're in, that finely balanced place where we do have some control over how we feel and act. Yes, we're powerless over alcohol and other drugs. And life always throws stuff our way that we cannot control. But we have a heck of a lot of influence (I'll go so far as to call it control) over how we deal with all of that stuff — as long as we stay connected, work a program of recovery and always greet the day the same way we close it, with humility and gratitude that we are very fortunate people.
Even in the dentist's chair, it is scary to go back to the way I used to be. The short hiatus reminded me I'm always an addict. That's OK, as long as I am an addict in recovery.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His new book, "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery," has just been published. Please send your questions to William Moyers at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.