It’s not because I don’t take care of my teeth and gums or because I don’t want to be told I have a cavity (well, that is true, but it’s not a deterrent). As much as the idea of someone trying to have a conversation with me while I have a tiny mirror, suction device, and cleaning tool in my mouth isn’t how I want to spend my time, good oral care is something I like to keep on top of. And I’m lucky I go to a dental office that both makes me feel comfortable and is gentle with its procedures.
The reason I hate going to the dentist is because I have dermatophagia.
Dermatophagia, like other body-focused repetitive behaviours (BFRBs), involves a repetitive action toward the body — in the case of dermatophagia, that’s skin biting. It can manifest as biting cuticles, skin around the nails, lips, or insides of the cheeks. For me, it’s mostly cheeks and sometimes lips.
I have a feeling you’re starting to see why I’d hate to go to dental visits.
If not, this is why: at any given point during the day, I will be biting chunks out of the inside of my cheeks. Sometimes it’s not enough to cause pain or too much damage, but other times it’s deep and bleeds, much like skin picking. Depending on the severity, the wound will stay open for a while, turn into a canker sore, or become infected.
The thing about the insides of cheeks though is the skin seems to heal over pretty quickly when it isn’t deep, which just makes going back in to reopen the wounds that much easier.
Understandably, I have lots of what dentists would refer to as “trauma” inside of my mouth, and I’m not sure quite how scarring works for the flesh inside of my face, but at this point, there’s over ten years’ worth of it.
When I know dental visits are coming around, I can sometimes curb it, at the very least in the few days before the visit. When I say curb, I mean do minimal damage; since I’ve started biting, I don’t think I’ve ever really stopped. I distinctly remember one visit when I was asked about the wounds; surprisingly, I wasn’t asked how they got there, but if I bit my cheeks and then told I should stop it (ah, that familiar chorus, am I right?).
I don’t hate going to the dentist because I’m afraid I’ll be “caught,” so to speak. Rather, I just don’t want to hear the “stop” mantra over and over again. Point blank, it’s annoying and I know that stopping is the ideal. I know that the reason I have a chipped tooth is probably from the grinding that takes place when I bite. In short, telling me to stop isn’t going to make me stop.
I didn’t bring up dermatophagia that last time I was told to stop, but have vowed that I will next time it comes up, if not before that.
The reason I wanted to write this blog is because we often talk about the consequences and realities of skin picking and hair pulling — the scarred and damaged skin, the bald patches, the overall anxiety, shame, or humiliation and so on — but we don’t often touch on other BFRBs.
Apart from dental visit anxiety, there’s also dealing with constant pain in your mouth that you can’t put a bandage over. There’s tooth pain and jaw pain. There’s the bitten skin that stings when you eat, drink, or even talk. And that’s just for this kind of dermatophagia.
If you’re looking for tips on how to stop biting your cheeks, I’m sorry I don’t have anything to offer you in that department. I literally bite my cheeks every day, don’t have much control over it, and probably do it more than I even pick my skin (which is also a daily thing).
What I can say though is if you’re struggling with this, you’re not alone. It might not be as heavily discussed as trichotillomania and dermatillomania, but there are those of us out there living with dermatophagia, too. I know the struggle and I stand with you.