On The Other Side of Oral Surgery

Pain meds + iced cream + ice sculptures

Last night, I broke down crying over a slice of bread because it had seeds in it. Man, was I excited to try that bread, it was supposed to be a victory lap after three-and-a-half days of very successful healing. But I’m not supposed to eat seeds yet, and this bread turned out, had seeds. And that was the end of me. I fell into a pit of self-despair as I poured myself another damn bowl of soup.

Obviously, the break in my emotional dam was not really about seeds. This has not been a good few months. When I got back from the Camino in August, I developed a white spot on one of my gums next to a crowned tooth. As someone with unexplainable dental issues since childhood (one of those issues being a debilitating fear of dentists), this spot sent me into a panic and a slump. As a child, I ate the same amount of sugary junk any other 90s child seemed to eat, and yet my friends came out with clean bills of health from the dentist, and I did not. I didn’t get it. I brushed, I flossed, I used that mouthwash where you squeeze the bottle and it fills up the cup on the top. As an adult, I’m borderline obsessive about my teeth. I was excited to work from home so I could brush my teeth more. I’ve nearly completely cut out sugar and I’ve looked into acid reflux. And so I linked my oral health to humiliation and the inability to do something right. It must not be enough, I must be doing something wrong. No one else talks about tooth issues, so it must just be me, right?

Back to August:

I called around town, and everyone told me to give it some time–it will probably go away. And alas, it did, for a while. But it returned, worse than before.

Mid-November, I had no choice. I was losing sleep over worrying. But I had no pain, so what’s the worst that could happen? It was raining the day I went in. She was the first of four doctors I’d see in the next two weeks. She told me there was a large cyst in my jaw, that both teeth were most likely severely cracked, and both had to come out. She seemed as shocked as I was. “Do you mind me asking, have you ever had any trauma to the face?” I told her no.

I spent the next two weeks barely sleeping, digging through the internet for comfort. For those relating to this so far, I was lucky to find this site, which has been a godsend. I saw three more specialists, had four more x-rays, and that was that. The last specialist was the most thorough and kind.

“I have terrible teeth, I know,” I said to her as she looked at the x-rays.

“You don’t, actually. You’re really fine, but these two teeth are a mess, and I want to know why that is.” And then she asked me the same question every doctor asked me throughout this ordeal, each with a lowered voice. “Have you had any trauma to that area of your face?” AKA…has anyone ever hit you and you’re not telling us?

Luckily, no. But I’m not sure my doctors believe me. Because apparently, the damage doesn’t make sense. “What about teeth grinding, have you been under any stress?” she asked.

“Well that’s very possible,” I answered,”I’ve been to see doctors about my jaw locking up two times since 2015. It’s been a bumpy few years…”

“That’s my best guess, then,” she said, solemnly.

Wow. So is that really it? My damn stress lead to this? After all my dental hygiene obsessing: the water pick, the oil pulling, the dentist-recommended-fricken everything, my stress strikes again.  I walked out, feeling even more defeated than before, but somehow relieved that it possibly wasn’t a sign of bad hygiene.

I spent the next two weeks telling everyone other than very close friends and family that I was getting “surgery.” Getting teeth pulled made me sound like someone who had failed, a weirdo that must not have taken care of herself. Or maybe she doesn’t have enough money and therefore doesn’t work hard enough to get her teeth fixed. Yes, I know this is all garbage, but that’s where your mind goes. We live in a smile-based society. A pretty smile equals wealth and hard work. This, of course, is baloney. The same way people don’t talk openly about their money woes, people don’t talk openly about dental problems. Because there is unnecessary shame linked to it. And so, we stay quiet, afraid someone will judge us. And worse, we avoid the dentist for fear that our shame has kept us away too long, and that someone–even the dentist themselves–will look down on us. So problems get worse.

On the day of the surgery–because it was technically surgery in my case, I was just very much awake for it–I listened to the same music I listened to on the Camino. It was the only thing that kept me from running out of the room. I trusted my doctor and therefore somehow got through it. I plan to write his caring assistant a thank you note for holding my hand. The doctor agreed that the cyst could have been the cause of my mysterious illness for the past year and a half, but who knows. I’m waiting on a biopsy, so please cross your fingers for me.

Healing, pain-wise has been smooth in comparison to horror stories I’ve read. I am very lucky that these are far from the front of my mouth, and apparently not visible. And I am VERY lucky that Ben and I have insurance. Even with insurance, this whole ordeal was equivalent to getting a new alternator on the car.

But what’s worse, is that I’ve barely wanted to leave the house in fear that someone will notice and judge me, even though you can’t see that anything is wrong.  And this is ridiculous. If I had a cyst anywhere else on my body, I wouldn’t feel ashamed, so why here?

And beyond that, how many other people feel this way or have felt this way? How many of my friends avoid the dentist, and therefore possibly prolong problems, because they’re ashamed or terrified of that dreaded sterile smell when you walk into a dentist office waiting room?

That is why I needed to write this tonight. As Nora Ephron said, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.” I’m tired of hiding my frustrating, possibly stress-induced dental hell from everyone like it’s my dark, embarrassing secret. I’d rather laugh at myself than imagine being laughed at.

If anyone needs to talk about their dental anxieties, you give me a call day or night. And a giant thank you to my new dental buddies who helped me through this.

I still have a long road ahead of me, but I hope that the end is in sight. I can say that I am no longer losing sleep, I sleep like a rock now actually, and I do think my health will improve now that I’ve faced the issue.

The day I get my clean bill of dental health, I plan to ask my dentist to sign a fake certificate, which I will frame and hang by my desk with pride.

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