A dentist suggested I see a hygienist. She tried her best to make it sound as if this advice didn’t amount to me being sent to the naughty step. H
A dentist suggested I see a hygienist. She tried her best to make it sound as if this advice didn’t amount to me being sent to the naughty step. Her tone was kinder than that, more like a teacher saying: “You’ve obviously tried very hard with this work and it’s very good, but why don’t you take it away and have another look at it?”
The hygienist was very thorough. She too trod a line of floss-like fineness between praising my efforts, saying there wasn’t too much to worry about, and yet also implying that if I didn’t sharpen up a bit, the consequences would be grave. I very clearly heard my entirely toothless grandad’s words when I was a newly baby-toothless teenager: “This set of teeth have got to last you a lifetime now; look after them.” I took this on board but then he disappointed me greatly by giving me an electric toothbrush for Christmas. I wanted a bike.
The hygienist gave me three sizes of those little pokey brushy things, explaining they work better than flossing. She also showed me how to use an electric toothbrush correctly. I was astonished to learn that waggling it around the inside of your mouth for 20 seconds or so is suboptimal. I was even more astounded to be advised that the head should be changed every two months. Hmm. I hadn’t changed mine once in the three years I’d had it.
She told me to take 30 seconds to move the brush slowly along the front of the top teeth, then 30 seconds along the back of them and then the same procedure for the bottom ones. Two minutes, then: a short amount of time in the scheme of things, well spent. That evening, with my armoury of new gear ready to go, I strode up to the sink full of purpose.
The poking bit is tricky enough. Three weeks on I still haven’t managed to memorise which of my three brush sizes fit in which gaps. But the bigger challenge has been elongating the electric brushing to the specified 30 seconds for each sweep. I just can’t go slowly enough. I have tried setting the timer on my watch and bringing a clock with a second hand into the bathroom. Didn’t help. So I tried dividing the 30 seconds into two, with 15 seconds to get me from the back of the mouth to the front and another 15 seconds continuing around from the front to the back of the mouth on the other side. I still couldn’t manage it. I moved on to dividing the 30 seconds by the number of areas to be dealt with (13 gaps plus the outsides of the back ones) and tried to keep the brush in each spot for two seconds. Incredibly, I still couldn’t do it. So, after three weeks trying, I finally gave up, deciding that it was simply impossible. I decided this in the same way I might have concluded that I simply couldn’t learn Mandarin or how to ride a unicycle.
On reflection, this has really shocked me. I conclude that while lockdown has, greatly to my benefit, slowed my life down, there is still some work to do; there’s more slowing down to be done. Many times, looking into the bathroom mirror, I had told myself I simply did not have this much time to spare for a new, improved dental hygiene regime. This much time! How profoundly ridiculous to be quite unable to stand still for even two minutes twice a day; how madly must the adrenal glands be relentlessly pumping at all hours. What’s my rush? Until a fire breaks out, the flat starts flooding or the dog has learned how to open the fridge, I most definitely have a minute or more to spare twice a day. So now I am renewing my efforts to meet my hygienist’s demands; apart from anything else I’m seeing her on Tuesday and crave approval. If I can get to two minutes’ brushing twice a day, it may not mean I’ve found inner peace, but it would surely be a sign I’m inching closer to it.
• Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist