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Loss of control

BY WILLIAM MOYERS Modified: January 21, 2013 at 9:18 am •  Published: January 21, 2013

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.

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