One Foot In

Gina Gershon’s Trip to Heaven in the Dentist’s Chair

Newsweek's recent cover story about heaven sparked much conversation. Gina Gershon offers her own tale about a brush with the afterlife—while having dental work done. The actress’s story is in an excerpt from her new book, ‘In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind.’

Larry Busacca / Getty Images

I’m a bit scared of new people working on my teeth.

So when I had a cavity, I went to my New York guy. I sat down in the friendly family dentist’s chair and he very pleasantly asked me if I would like some gas before he started. Nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas, gives one an exhilarating feeling while operating as an anesthetic. I had never had it before, but I’m always open to new, chemically induced experiences, so I said sure.

He placed the mask around my nose, and after about a minute or two of inhaling this sweetly odored vapor, I started feeling light-headed and very relaxed. I became super-aware of every sound around me. The drill became the bass, the clinking of tools the high hat, the murmuring of voices the melody, and the honking cars and buses from outside turned into very cool drum sounds. This shit was great! I had a whole orchestra playing in my head, and then, as has happened when I’ve done other hallucinatory drugs, I began to choreograph a lovely ballet in my head.

Everything was a pleasant hue of orange as the dancers performed across the “stage.” I was really enjoying myself, completely forgetting about the barbaric acts that were occurring in my mouth. Then, suddenly out of nowhere, a very distinct man’s voice boomed, “Leave your boyfriend. He is not good enough for you.” (He kind of sounded like a white version of James Earl Jones’s Darth Vader.) This really interrupted my reverie. I blinked my eyes open and looked at the dentist.

With my mouth full off appliances, I asked him very pointedly,“What?”

“I didn’t say anything. Are you OK? Should I turn down the gas?”

“No, I’m fine,” I lied. I was a little freaked out but curious enough to go back to my orange daze and hear some more words from the man in the ether.

He proceeded to tell me how my boyfriend at the time had been cheating on me, and with whom, and I needed to break up with him. He said this all in a very matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way. This seemed strange to me, since I was pretty into my boyfriend at the time and had no clue about any of this. A few months later, however, the truth came out. The liar had been totally cheating on me with all of the people the voice told me about. He was a total dick about it, and I felt hurt and betrayed. This was definitely not unconditional love. I broke up with him immediately and realized just how toxic the relationship had become. It was like an emotional crash-diet. I felt as light as a feather. Whoa. How did this guy know this stuff? Was he the inner wizard in my head, or was he seriously like the voice of God. Or perhaps one of God’s assistants?

I thought it was just one of those things and didn’t obsess on it too much, until I had to go back to the dentist to replace a few cavities with porcelain and remove the archaic mercury fillings.

Once again he offered me gas. I politely accepted. The orchestra began to play. The lighting began to reflect a heavenly orange hue. The dancers began to perform, and then suddenly the voice was back.

“A relationship is like a tooth.”

He then proceeded to give a lecture about the foundation of the relationship, how if there is a cavity that is not replaced, it will soon rot and you will lose the whole tooth, and perhaps even part of the jaw, etc. It all made perfect sense. A brilliant analogy summing up what makes a healthy relationship (or tooth).

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So now I’ve had two nitrous oxide–induced episodes involving an omniscient, disembodied Wizard of Oz–like voice who shares his wisdom with me in the dental chair. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. Obviously, I had to book a dental appointment to speak to the wizard and ask him where I could find my beloved cat, Cleo.

It wasn’t time for a cleaning, but I called my new and improved L.A. dental office and told them that something was bothering me and I should come in. As it turns out, I really did need a root canal. (Oh, the powers of the mind!) Bummed about the root canal, but excited about the gas, I went in. The dentist said it may hurt a bit, so he would give me extra gas. Who was I to disagree? Extra gas, extra wisdom?

As the orchestra started to play, and everything began to take on an orange hue, I very respectfully asked the voice to please tell me where I could find my cat. The dancers began their intoxicated ballet. But there was no voice. The second act began. This time, a weird serpent-like character showed up and the dance became more Pina Bausch–like, with the dancers hopping to and fro, avoiding the monster. One of them kept yelling for pizza. It was getting weird, but still no voice. Shit. Maybe he was mad at me for making a request. Maybe it didn’t work that way. Maybe I’d just had too much gas! Then out of nowhere, sounding very far away, the voice very calmly appeared.

“One foot in, one foot out of heaven.”

Period. Silence. Nothing.

Usually the voice was right above me, slightly to the right, but this time he was far away.


He repeated it: “One foot in, one foot out of heaven.”

What the fuck does that mean? I need more! I am in a lot of pain and I need answers! Somehow I realized that if I wanted to know what he was talking about, I had to go to where he was. Somewhere outside and beyond the dentist’s office. I wanted to know so badly what he was talking about that my desire and will transported me. I saw the clichéd version of the aerial view of me in the dentist’s chair. Next thing I knew, I was in a very twilight-dark, gray atmosphere, full of hazy lights shooting around like headlights on a foggy night. In fact, we were light sources as well. No one had bodies. The voice and I were in a deep discussion. He was telling me the answers to the really big cosmic questions. Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? How did the universe really begin? Who makes the best pastrami sandwich in NYC? I don’t know if was having a near-death experience or a serious hallucination or what.

Either way, at this point I didn’t give a shit about my relationships anymore. My career didn’t mean a thing. I didn’t even have any attachment to my family or friends. I didn’t even really care about finding Cleo! It all seemed so small compared to how expansive I felt, and next to the really important matters at hand, my life on earth seemed trivial. Wow! Why couldn’t I feel like that all of the time?! It was amazing! Then I realized, One foot in, one foot out of heaven. That must be the in-between zone. Not quite on earth, not quite the next stop. Maybe it’s the place where the crazy people live. I’ve heard about how in some cultures people revere the crazy ones because they think that they are closer to God. Wherever I was, I liked it. I was freer, more knowledgeable, and felt incredibly content.

I’m not even sure that I wanted to go back. Was I ready to totally abandon my former life and live there? Did I even know how to get back? Did I really want to deal with the pain of the aftermath of a root canal? The moment fear started to rear its reasonable head, I shot back into my body. I could feel my mouth again. I was back in the dentist’s chair. Whoa. That was really a trip.

Reprinted from In Search of Cleo by Gina Gershon by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Gina Gershon.