I used to find the notion of “going to your happy place” in times of stress ridiculous. I was a child, and looking back on that time now—on my opinions and preoccupations—I am convinced that children think most things adults do (especially to soothe themselves) are ridiculous, or even disgusting. I thought the phrase “going to your happy place” was sickly cute, and that the cuteness effaced any meaning the concept might have. What is a “happy place”? I wondered. How can it be a “place” if it is only in your mind? What are you talking about?

And I was an imaginative child! Though maybe that was the problem. I thought that adults were inventing a weak term for the ceaseless mental exploration that seemed, to me, more natural than breathing.

I might even have been right. But what can I say? I’m a lot more stressed out now.

Longtime readers of this comic (or just, you know, my friends) will know that I have a pathological dislike of going to the dentist. This week, I had to go get a filling, which spiraled out into maybe (but not definitely!! As if you wouldn’t want to know for sure!!) needing a root canal, and involved holding my mouth open so wide, for so long, that now, two days later, my jaw is still sore. Or maybe that’s the sign that I need the root canal. Unclear.

One strange and uncomfortable quality of being at the dentist’s office is how passive an experience it is. You sit in the chair and wait; they numb you and you wait some more; you lie back and let people stick their fingers in your mouth and then stick in a whining drill, and you wait, because you are not really involved in what they’re doing. In this case, my tooth was decayed at just such a depth, and so close to an existing filling, that the dentist used progressively slower, louder drills in order to diminish the likelihood of cracking my tooth. He described the sounds that I’d be hearing from one of them as “extremely chippy.”

I am not afraid of pain at the dentist. I don’t really care that much about having my teeth drilled; getting the cotton removed from my ear post-surgery was much worse. But that passivity: it gets me. Both total, and oddly halfway. For surgery, you’re arguably much more passive; you’re asleep, you can supposedly pee yourself, you don’t remember anything. But for dentistry, your mind is present, just not particularly welcome. It is a passenger for the experience.

So anyway, I tried going to my happy place.

My happy place is in the ocean. I don’t claim this is especially unique. But last time I got to go for a really good swim, I made a mental note of how it felt to bob in the waves, and then dive under one, what the smell of salt was like, how my shoulders released all their tension while I floated on the scrim of the sea and looked at the small cloud-covered mountain in the distance. I can feel the sand on my skin, moving underneath my bathing suit, and the buoyancy that lets me release all expectation of the future. It is a small, specific point in time, the sun is above me and to the left, occasionally too bright but mostly occluded by gentle clouds. There are children snorkeling nearby, but I am able quite easily, to duck my head to the waterline and experience only myself, and no one else. Not as a passenger; or perhaps yes, as the only passenger on the entire earth, suspended above some immortal engine.

You can see, grammatically, how quickly I move into the present of this moment. I can carve this place out in my mind.

The problem with being an adult is that I know my imagination will not fix my tooth. The tooth will still be a Shirley Jackson-esque problem, radiating in my jaw.

But maybe the point of the happy place—which, yes, takes on a more pleasingly ominous tone once I associate it with Shirley Jackson—is that the world can be dissolved through force of will. As can the body. My tooth, after all, is quite literally dissolving, perhaps because I ate a jelly bean once. Which means all matter is permeable, and of course all experience is much more permeable than that.

Stick it with a pin. Let the air out. Let the air change. Take a deep breath, of fresh air. Let it all back out.