A Doctor, A Pastor, and a Car Salesman…

A Doctor, A Pastor, and a Car Salesman… April 24, 2014

No, they’re not walking into a bar. But perhaps they should…

Here’s what I know about TMJ: well, I know a lot, and guess/infer a lot more–this is some of each. For starters 1) it affects more women than men; 2) it is a whole-person issue, encompassing physical, dental, and psychological factors–which means that no type of insurance coverage– even if you have benefits for all three of these areas–wants to cover treatment. Some come right out and say in the fine print ‘we do not cover treatment for your crazy imaginary jaw pain’ (mostly that’s my interpretation. but it’s accurate.) 3)most specialists in this field seem to be men. 4)”Specialty” is a loose term here because–like most maladies that affect mostly women, it has not yet been deemed a legitimate field of specialty in the medical world. 5)People with TMJ are tired of treatments that don’t work; doctors who don’t listen; and insurance companies saying it’s not real enough. But mostly, they are tired of pain. Those who suffer chronic, high level pain will pay any amount of money to alleviate it. Even if results cannot be guaranteed.

This makes for interesting dynamics in the patient/caregiver world.

Luckily, my pain level is very manageable, most of the time, with ibuprofen, yoga, a well-fitting bite guard to sleep in; and also the not-chewing-of-gum-or-well-done-steak diet. However, I have had days (rare) when the pain was so intense, I wondered how people live like this….and I would have been willing to sell my house, my car, move anywhere in the world, to find a fix.

Luckily, yesterday was not one of those days. No, yesterday was one of the days when I felt pretty good, and just went in for a consult to see if (yet another) ‘specialist’ might offer me some longer term solutions. Long story short, I left when he started talking about breaking my jaw, extracting permanent molars, and flying me to Michigan (?) for $50-thousand dollars worth of surgery; to be followed up with extensive reconstructive dental work, of course.

Um…I really just need somebody to fix this piece of plastic that I wear at night? Thanks.

Point is, I walked away in a hurry because my pain was not NEARLY bad enough for me to entertain such a dramatic line of treatment. But after years on this journey, I liken the process of finding a legit caregiver in this field to the experience of…well, buying a car.  It is mostly men-selling-to-women; and women in pain are vulnerable. And the more vulnerable you are (or the more urgently you need a car)…well, the more you will spend without asking enough questions.

I’ve learned how to really appreciate good, knowlegable professionals who don’t make promises; who don’t charge you for needless treatments; and who are always learning more, whenever they can. I’ve also learned where to watch for red flags, and there are a few factors that will send me out of an office, or away from a website, without a second thought.

And the more I think about it–they are all the same red flags that would make me skeptical of a church.

All y’all who suffer from this imprecise and always evolving kind of discomfort–you aren’t alone, and there is hope out there.

All y’all who suffer from spiritual homelessness, faith-inspired wandering, and want of a true community of faith–you aren’t alone. There is hope out there.

I can’t tell you the best way to go about finding the right fit, in either regard–but i can tell you what you DON’T want. Sometimes, by sheer process of elimination, the right path will present itself.

1. First of all, you do not want a Church, or doctor, that is clearly trying to sell you something.  Sure, every church has it’s ‘sales pitch;’ and every doctor needs to be able to explain the reasoning behind a given course of treatment. But I’m concerned when the conversation about money happens before any real relationship/conversation/viewing of Xrays has happened. If a doctor or pastor starts talking about ways you can get money from family members to help you on this journey… yeah, I’m out. Listen: a real ‘mission,’ or treatment plan, is articulated by means of truth-telling, and not through a series of power point slides and pictures/stories of worst-case scenarios.

2. And while we’re thinking about powerpoint and photos, a trip to church or the dentist/ortho guy need not be an enormous production. If it feels well-rehearsed, it probably is. If you are bombarded with endless testimonials of miraculous healing/success stories before you’ve even made a second apointment; or if the pastor/doctor has a quick and ready answer for your every question–and maybe talks down to you like you’ve posed a stupid question–bounce.

3. Fear. Fear is the favorite tool of bad doctors/pastors/salesmen everywhere. And when people are in pain, the fear of enduring even MORE pain is unbearable. What the bad docs and preachers know is that you will do anything to avoid more pain. So if they start to notice that you aren’t buying what they’re selling, their stories of ‘what happens if you don’t sign/join/buy’ get more extreme. The pictures get more gruesome. Hell is implied, or the devil is invoked by name. Just remember, that fear is not your friend–and fear is not the friend of any legitimate source of healing.

4. And my favorite: THE MESSIAH COMPLEX.  Also known as the Everybody But Me Is Wrong approach to medicine/ministry. Sure, I want my doctor to be confident, and to be able to articulate why a particular course of treatment will be right for me. But when Ihear the words “anybody who tells you this can be done any other way is lying…” [read: you’re stupid for wanting a second opinion] I’m out. It is no secret that churches do this often: “we believe in the One True God, Worship in the Only Correct Way to Worship, and pray the only Prayer of Salvation that will really get you into heaven.” Matters of both body and spirit call for a certain degree of humility… a margin of curiosity, and some room to grow. The acceptance of evolving truths and newly emerging leaders and practices. A doctor or pastor who has it all figured out is going to be bad news, and you can take that to the bank. “Only” is a dangerous word.

5. Finally, the best truth to carry is this one: trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. God gave us the gifts of intution and discernment for a reason. Those are also known as a Bull$^*! Meter. If yours is in good shape, you will be fine.

Even armed with this knowledge,  it is a long and winding road to find the kind of body and soul care that we need to live our best, fullest lives. There will be setbacks and disappointments; days of pain and discomfort; and shifty salesmen (and women) wearing the skin of a medical or religious professional. But remember, there are good doctors, dentists, pastors–and even car salesmen–out there in the world. They have decent commercials. (or NO COMMERCIALS). They genuinely care about people. They can get you where you need to go without actually breaking your face or your bank account. So keep looking, and hoping… and don’t let the pain make all of your decisions.

Be well.


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  • Bob Fugate

    You carry your pain well

  • Cheryl Carmichael

    Erin, Rick had major oral surgery back in 2004? to straighten his bite – after years of headaches, etc.- insurance did not pay that $22,000 bill…. He started his path with braces as an adult, also not paid by insurance – serious stuff. His after x-ray of all the titanium (screws and plates) in his jaw scares dentists to this day… He almost bled to death – during the first surgery. He had to go back for a second “free” surgery to finish the job. He still has the headaches… he spent 10 visits to a dentist getting his bite back… again not paid by insurance. I am glad to read you nixed this solution.