I bit into a Weetabix and immediately I felt it: something small, hard and sharp-edged. I say I bit into a Weetabix, but you don’t really bite into Weetabix, do you? They’re famously soggy cereal options and that was one of the reason I’d heaped them so generously in milk - I actually like that. I like the dampness of it, that little flat oval soaking up its delicately sweetened bath, gradually shredding its edges as it swells and fattens. I turned the strange something over as I tried to separate the mystery from the mulch. I reached in, and pulled it out.
It was my tooth. Or at least a part of my tooth. One of my molars had actually broken while eating Weetabix. WEETABIX. Immediately I panicked; my teeth up until this point had been A-Okay, and I’d never even had a suspect inspection from the dentist, let alone a filling or root canal (whatever that is). Fish-hooking each side of my mouth, I tilted my head back in front of a mirror and leaned in to take a closer look. Yep, there it was: my broken, slightly blackened tooth. I glanced down at the defector in my palm and wondered whether I should keep it. It felt a shame to simply toss it in the bin after 24 years of loyalty, but it also felt quite gross to stash it somewhere because a) hello serial killer behaviour and b) there’s obviously something wrong with it. And what is the preservation process for a bit of dodgy tooth? I ended up chucking it, but I’ll now consider this the lost tooth obituary. Thank you for your service (although kindly fuck you for jumping ship).
As much as the Great Weetabix Debacle of ’18 caught me off guard, I could hardly be surprised. I hadn’t been to the dentist in 6 years and up until that point, I had no intention of booking in. It was a bit of an inconvenience and with time being the apex of my anxieties (time running out, time being wasted, not using time wisely, balancing time between work and life), I always found something more important to do. My teeth could wait. They were okay anyway. A bit sensitive maybe, but they all looked normal and I’d never had any problems.
Newsflash: they were obviously not fine, and now with my crumbly companion cast aside in the deep depths of the black bin, I faced the challenge of somersaulting through hoops to try and get myself registered somewhere.
I thought about somersaulting through hoops to get myself registered somewhere, at least. But in truth, I didn’t do much. I made a few enquires at dentists around me but none were accepting NHS patients - full lists, they said - so I gave up. Hey, I tried. This definitely counted as trying. My tooth wasn’t painful at this point but it was suspiciously fragile, so I made a point of avoiding the crunchier food varieties and out of principle, Weetabix was off the menu too.
But then another bit broke. Another big, big chunk. Basically one side of my tooth had jumped ship, and by now I was started to panic that the nerve was going to be exposed and I’d plunge myself, out of sheer negligence, into a pit of pain. To rub salt in the wound, my brother had also experienced some tooth trouble around the same time and managed to get a same-day appointment at the very first dentist practise who told me they were full. Oh, okay. Fantastic. Thrilled to hear it. I marched right back through those doors (and when I said I marched through the doors, I politely called them on the phone), and asked if I could be put top of the waiting list since I’d been viciously attacked by a wheat-based breakfast bowl.
Luckily I was given a spot shortly after, and following the initial inspection and a few awkward-to-operate biting X-Rays, I was administered my first ever filling. It was slightly uncomfortable but it was fine. Easy, even. When I stepped outside 20 minutes later, I wondered why I’d neglected such a routine procedure for so long. Admittedly part of me was scared because I wasn’t sure what to expect, but mostly it was indifference to my own health; looking after myself physically wasn’t - and probably still isn’t - a priority.
I danced the same dance when it came to my smear test. I received that first initiating letter before my 25th birthday and immediately cast it aside as too early - would they even let me book an appointment at 24? Better not waste their time. It could wait.
Then my 25th birthday rolled around and I was busy being consumed by the dramas of my own personal life. And then those dramas were done, and I’d received two more nudging letters, and I couldn’t think of any more excuses which I could kid myself into thinking were legitimate. So I finally booked the appointment, and it was fine. Easy even.
Let’s not forget the opticians, either. As it stands, the prescription I use for contact lenses is 8 years old, maybe even older. My glasses I’ve had updated multiple times in between, but my contact lenses? Even though I wear them 4/5 days out of the week, I’ve yet to attend an appointment to have them changed. And I know I need new ones, because when I have them in I can’t bloody read things at a distance. I’ve had two driving lessons in my life, and during the first one the bitch of an instructor asked me to read some number plates - I got them all wrong, obviously. (I can say she was a bitch because she really was dreadful; she spent 4 dreadful hours body-shaming and slagging off her previous students, who, by the way, were mostly SEVENTEEN.) I’ve thus far organised two contact lense reviews, both of which I’ve cancelled, either because I’d forgotten I’d booked it in or felt like I had more important things to do. Do you know how many times I’ve rolled into a Monday morning with the determination to finally eliminate this from my much, much overdue to-do list? Me neither. A lot of times.
I know I’m not alone in this neglecting of my health. When I asked on Instagram Stories whether other people also delay their important appointments, of the five and a half thousand people who answered, a whopping 83% confessed they’re putter-offers too. This only bolsters statistics we're all too familiar off such as 1 in 4 women not attending their smear test. Getting to the root of this persistent postponing was never going to be a simple task, but as individuals started relaying their personal experiences to me, I was surprised at just how complex the issue is.
For a lot of us, time and work are at the crux of the matter. Many stated that they simply wouldn’t be able to get time off for health appointments, and they didn’t want to use what little holiday time they had for anything that wasn’t urgent. And I get that - if the only time you can get an appointment is Wednesday 11am and your boss isn’t willing to accommodate, then it feels like your only option is to book a day off and go then. But what about follow ups? And other health appointments? How many holiday days do you have to lose? And let’s not forget that in many work environments you can’t easily take a day off without booking far in advance, in which case divine intervention is needed to align both availability for leave on the work calendar and an available appointment slot wherever you’re headed.
Similar answers cropped up for those looking after children - if they can get an appointment, they can’t get childcare, and if they can get childcare, they can’t get an appointment. So then what?
Being self-employed, I do have the freedom to take midday appointments, but being self-employed, I rarely feel like these are a priority. There’s always something more urgent to do, and more urgent in the sense that whatever it is is probably already overdue or at least needs to be dusted off by the end of the day. It feels like wasting time. It feels like I’m skiving off, which I know is a ridiculous way to think but a way I think nonetheless. I heard this echoed back by many other young self-employed people; the pressure to validate ourselves through persistent hard work and busy busy busy reigns king, even over our health. We need to feel like our work choices are legit, and so the potential of that 45 minute wait in the doctor’s surgery seems like a supreme waste of earning hours.
A lot of us simply want to bury our heads in the sand. We don’t want to receive bad news, and so we subscribe to the ‘don’t ask, don’t know’ mentality, choosing to breeze on oblivious despite the potential that we’re doing ourselves harm. We get caught in a catch 22; the longer we leave it the more we need to go, but the more we resist because we’ve left it so long. We fear our own mortality, and it’s easier to ignore that than to engage it head on. Some people cited genuine health anxiety too - the deep-rooted, from-the-feet-up-fear that they’re inhabited by an unseeable illness, seeking confirmation of which would only bring about more dread and upset. In fact, even being reminded of routine, preventative procedures like the smear tests triggers this anxiety, making it doubly more difficult to engage with health services.
Others cited disillusionment with available healthcare. The impossibility of booking appointments, the ‘you’re number 38 in the call queue’ at 8am, the blackhole of referrals and revisits and, expectedly, not being listened to when we’re discussing our own bodies. I’ve felt this way before. I get UTI’s like a motherfucker and I’ve had them since I was about 10, so imagine if you will the amount of times I’ve crossed the GP threshold in search of antibiotics and relief. It was only during my most recent appointment that the female doctor asked why I hadn’t been given an ultrasound or any blood tests to determine the cause of my recurring infections. I told her I’d been asking for years, but I’d always been fobbed off with the same old advice that I basically have tattooed on my soul anyway. Thankfully she pushed through for an appointment for both, but I’d stopped asking for the thing I needed because it was like banging by head against a brick wall.
A similar thing happened with my irregular periods; I hadn’t had one for almost three months and I’d started to feel concerned, but when I went to the doctor and I explained my symptoms, he gave me a grand total of 1 minute of his time, within which he imparted this expert advice: “I’m sure it will be fine, just wait and see”. Just wait and see. After replaying this frustrating scenario time and time again, you get sick of doing it. What’s the point? And why the fuck would you take time off work for this? I can only imagine what it’s like for disabled women, fat women, women with chronic health conditions, women with eating disorders or a history or eating disorders, trans women, women who have battled or do battle with their mental health - whose every appointment inevitably revolves around the very thing they did not come to discuss. Oh, you have an infected toenail? Maybe you should try losing some weight.
A lot of us don’t want to put further strain on an already stretched National Health Service. We don’t consider our issues to be serious enough, or we believe that someone else could benefit more from that coveted appointment slot. Again, I hear that. I often think ‘well, I’m young and I’m relatively healthy and it doesn’t feel that bad, so it can wait’, especially when I then think of people like my Grandad who’d had a heart attack and hip replacement in one year and who struggled to get a GP appointment when he needed it most. I don’t want to be the person that takes that valuable spot for a few missed periods or a vitamin deficiency, especially if I’m going to turn up and be told it’s probably nothing anyway.
Let’s not forget money, either. Prescriptions can be expensive. Dentists even more so. Opticians too. My lenses cost more than the frames they sit in because the prescription is so strong that they need to be thinned down, otherwise they sit like big glass blocks in front of my eyes. I don’t buy designer, it’s just bloody expensive to have shitty eyesight. Couple expense with the prospect of genuine hurt and inconvenience (here’s looking at you, root canal), then pay to pain becomes infinitely less appealing.
I could write forever on the myriad of responses I received, but one thing has become clear: there is no one reason as to why we aren’t prioritising our health. Each element of fear or shame or past trauma or indifference or exasperation is interwoven, sewing a blanket of disdain that binds our hands. It becomes easier to not engage, especially with the cocktail of other anxieties that already pepper our daily life. Seizing our health with both hands can sometimes feel like opening a can of worms, and who needs the extra stress?
Here’s what I think needs to change in order to re-involve us. It needs to be easier to register at the doctors or dentist; when I re-registered after returning from uni, I had to physically go into the practice, pick up forms, fill them out, post them back and go for an “introductory” GP appointment (introduction to what?) before I could book in to actually discuss the issues at hand. I'm sure this won't be the case for all doctors surgeries, but the faff of re/registering came up a lot in the answers submitted. There also needs to be greater support for those whose every surrounding dentists aren’t accepting new NHS patients, because in this situation, what are you actually supposed to do?
Some healthcare professionals need greater sensitivity when dealing with patients, and young women especially need to be listened to more and not fobbed off with antiquated advice and judgement. I'm putting this in bold because the amount of women saying they felt ignored, shamed, judged or insulted was staggering.
There needs to be wider access to healthcare, too; many practices only operate evening hours a few days a week if they open in the evening at all, and these locations can be too far for many people to travel. If you want to access sexual health services in Ipswich you have travel to the outskirts of town, and many appointments have a 6 week waiting list anyway, if not longer. If you have money or your own transport then the distance is fine, but if you’re a 15 year old girl who has been redirected and who is desperately seeking urgent care without wanting parents or peers to know? It becomes a different story.
Workplaces must be more flexible when it comes to the health of their employees. It’s unfair and unjust that some people are forced to take limited holiday for appointments they’re rarely able to choose, and it’s even more unfair and unjust that this often means they don’t go at all.
We also need to take more responsibility for our own health. Whether we’re fearful, busy, lazy, or forgetful, we have to prioritise our wellbeing because we, first and foremost, are liable for the condition that we’re in. That’s not to say we’re to blame for health conditions because that obviously isn’t the case, but we are to blame if we’re delaying important appointments unnecessarily and doing further damage to issues that need addressing. If our bodies are the vessels of our existence - the very things which make our excuses for postponing things possible - then we have to respect that and give them the time they need. And we need to believe that we’re entitled to do so.
We’re not wasting time because we deserve to be heard as much as anybody else. Our health is important and we have the right to protect that. We should be protecting that.
Thank you to everybody who was kind enough to share their personal experience with me. I was blown away by how many written responses I received, and as upsetting as it is to learn how many of us aren’t putting our wellbeing first, I suppose there is a relief in knowing that we’re not alone. It’s not all inside our heads - others are feeling the exact same way too.
Oh, and consider this an order: book that fucking appointment and MAKE SURE YOU GO.