Enjoying a sandwich and a laugh in a short lunch break on a busy work day in February 2019, I was called to the phone to speak to “FedEx about a package”. The line was poor, but when I heard the words “Hi, it’s Fenella – I’m the organiser of TEDx Sydney”, my heart leapt with a jolt of excitement. I had never
imagined my work would lead to anything like this.
Through my work with survivors of sexual assault and trauma, I have been inspired to create a new paradigm for the dental profession to address the global issue of widespread anxiety, phobia and avoidance of dentists.
There are many parallels between the experiences, particularly in relation to the power imbalance dental treatment creates.
I have brought together knowledge from the ‘traumainformed’ approach; my clinical experience over 20 years with a special interest in working with anxious and phobic patients, and survivors of sexual assault and trauma; my research in collaboration with the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA); and research into trauma, dental anxiety and phobia. I have created a series of video resources to help both survivors and dentists navigate this complex area.
I was interviewed about my work in a new book, What we talk about when we talk about rape, distributed globally. Fenella had read about me, having just interviewed the author, New York-based Sohalia Abdulali; she was at the Sydney Opera House as part of the city’s writer’s festival.
Fenella continued. “There are more than 5,000 people in the room, 12 TV cameras, 200,000 people watching on live stream around Australia and millions around the world over time,” she told me. “No cue cards or prompts, every word memorised. Just you and the audience in a single take.”
I immediately understood the enormity of this challenge and the opportunity for deep learning and growth. I also
felt the responsibility of representing our profession as the first-ever Australian dentist to give a TEDx talk.
From that night onwards I began waking in a cold sweat after the recurring nightmare of getting stage fright and going blank in the middle of my talk, utterly humiliated in front of everyone. This continued right up to the event.
I was already in the midst of putting together a very different presentation for my first appearance: the Australian
Dental Congress in May 2019, 20 days before TEDx Sydney.
Composing the script for the TEDx talk was incredibly challenging and time-consuming, but also a thrilling
problem-solving exercise – condensing an entire body of research into 12 minutes, and making it easy for anyone ages 10 and up to understand. I realised that I would have to show people rather than tell them with words, and chose to use stories to communicate ideas and connect with the audience. I spent every waking moment distilling the messages of the speech, getting to the essence, then theessence of the essence, draft after draft.
Memorising was a fascinating process; I created layers of memory using every possible technique. I recited the
script everywhere, from running to driving and eventually at triple speed while listening to loud heavy metal to stress test myself. I drew ridiculous and hilarious colour images, made the sentences into catchy songs, chose emotional memories for every object, place and event in the talk, made intentions for each word and paragraph. My musical background came in handy: I treated the words as notes and relished all the emotional choices I had in ‘playing them’; I loved this process.
Of course, I was still petrified of going blank and didn’t sleep for an entire week in the lead-up to the day. After ‘make-up’ at 7am backstage, I spent five hours hyperventilating and trying not to faint. The irony of my topic wasn’t lost on me; I was now in the position of the panicked dentally phobic patients I am trying to help!
Amazingly, at this time my clinical experience came inhandy. At work I am experienced at putting aside my own
‘stuff’ to give my full attention to the patient and being of service to them. I decided all that mattered was delivering the messages to the people that needed to hear them; it wasn’t about me or what anyone thought of me.
I decided not to hide my nerves, rawness and vulnerability, and to try to be an example of what I was talking about: doing something incredibly scary while openly wrestling with fear. I wanted to show how much we can help each other to work through our fears. I was so panicked at the last moment that the backstage technician had to push me out onto the stage like a skydiver out of a plane door.
It was a great surprise when the audience laughed at my opening line, and this made it much easier to connect with them and stand and deliver the words. Waves of relief washed over me as the lines dropped into my head as I needed them. My breathing connected me to space and time, to my emotions and body. I felt like I was surfing the words and relished connecting with the vast ocean of supportive people in front of me; I savoured the rare opportunity to reach so many at once! I felt completely naked, humbled, full of passion and intensely alive.
Suddenly it was over, the audience were on their feet and I was whisked away straight into hours of media interviews. Euphoric, exhilarated and unbelievably relieved, I laughed to myself that there were ‘only four cameras’ at the next interview. For the rest of the afternoon and evening I was mobbed by a continuous stream of people expressing thanks and congratulations.
This has continued since in the form of long messages from survivors of trauma and dentists from all over the
world. Survivor patients have come to see me from all over Australia. With more experience, I have learned a lot about the skillset of giving media interviews, and I have been delighted by the interest in my work from beyond the dental world: psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, GPs, paramedics, educators, lawyers, and more.
I have since spoken at another eight conferences and enjoyed these enormously. I’m really excited to continue speaking this year with the first event coming up soon. I am also eager to explore the opportunities I have been offered regarding collaborating with universities and various organisations in research and the development of resources, teaching undergraduate dental students, and writing articles and journal papers. I am full of gratitude for these new avenues.