I know that everything I’m about to tell you is sad and pretty repulsive, actually. Just want to get that out of the way at the top so you’re not reading this thing thinking to yourself, “Is this chick seriously writing all of this stuff knowing that it’s going to be on the Internet forever and really not giving a fuck?”
Truth is, I do give a fuck but, like all of the problems that we have that we assume are special, I think that this is something else that other people deal with and sharing it means that it might reach them and reaching them might mean I wrote something that made them feel better about themselves. And I’m here to serve the human race, you know?
I didn’t go to the dentist for thirteen years. I can’t say that there was one particular moment in my dental history that lead to that unfortunate truth, more just a lot of small things.
My front two adult teeth grew in with a small gap between them. Looking back, it was actually somewhat of a stylish gap—my teeth were otherwise perfect and the space was perfectly petite—but no one wants to grow up feeling like anything is different about them. Everyone wants the same straight hair and flat stomach and perfect clothing and pretty little accessories. It’s a hideous little culture we’ve built for our young women; this is not a novel thought.
The gap probably would have stayed forever if x-rays hadn’t revealed that my right canine tooth was growing through the roof of my mouth. It would need surgery to expose the tooth, then braces with a wire that would, with time, pull the tooth into its correct spot. The surgery wasn’t that bad. I remember being real fucked up while they operated on me (yeah, I was awake) and smelling my palate being burnt. I kept yelling, “Hey! Hey! Why does it smell like shit?! What’s that smell?! It smells like I lit a piece of my hair on fire!”
I knew that smell well because I’d recently taken to plucking pieces of hair from my head and slowly dipping them into the flame on the Christmas Eve Yankee Candles my mom would keep around the house. This was pre-David After the Dentist, of course, so my screaming wasn’t considered particularly charming and I’m not sure the doctor understood that I’d been cussing like a sailor since living in Italy largely unsupervised at the age of seven.
My braces weren’t really what did me in. I actually loved them and would get them again in a heartbeat. They were the one of the best accessories I ever had. When I’d smile, my teeth would sparkle. I got them off on my seventeeth birthday and although I’d never felt prettier, I missed them right away.
I think it was my mom’s braces that really horrified me. She’d been hit in the mouth with a hockey puck at a Beanpot game as a child and I guess her teeth were never the same. She struggled with dental work for years and eventually got braces at the age of 32. She lost a ton of weight, she was always in pain, she paid more than any single mother could afford to try and get her mouth to a place where she’d finally feel at peace with it. She’d always say to me, “Molly, you have your mother’s teeth. We have soft teeth. Take care of them. You don’t want to wind up like me.”
So I’d say that part of my fear surrounding the dentist, if not almost all of it, had to do with dreading that I’d learn I’m exactly like my mother. I didn’t want to go through years of surgeries. I had no health insurance. I had no time to sit in bed and be in pain. I already was rockin’ some pretty righteous anorexia around the age I stopped seeing my high school dentist, I didn’t need to be further limited to smoothies.
Years went by. I went to college. I partied or studied until I passed out all of the time. A lot of nights I’d drink a Coke or a beer before bed and not brush my teeth until morning. I’d think of the penny experiment, the one where you’d put a dirty penny into a glass of coke and 24 hours later it’d be as clean as it was when it left the penny factory. I had a college boyfriend who used to do the same with Gatorade and when he went to the dentist senior year, he had seven cavities.
Four years went by and another four years went by after that and I was sure that I was going to be told that I needed three root canals and was going to lose at least one tooth entirely. I figured all of my teeth had cavities in them. There was just no way they couldn’t. I flossed and brushed regularly now but with no regular dental check ups, my teeth had surely gone to shit.
Then another four years went by and I eventually got a job that gave me dental insurance. I didn’t use it for a year. When I admitted one day at work that not only was I not using my insurance but that I hadn’t been to the dentist in thirteen years, people looked appalled. Other people were as ashamed of me as I was of myself.
I talked about it in therapy quite a bit. My therapist is always on me about self-care. I struggle with it. I struggle with thinking I deserve to go to the doctor or the dentist. I let health issues get really out of control. I don’t sleep enough. I don’t eat enough or I eat too much of the wrong things. I can go three days without showering. One of her goals in working with me is to get me to start giving a fuck about myself.
And then one day, I just did. I gave enough fucks about myself and I called up a dentist that’d been recommended to me and when they asked why I was calling, I told them the truth: I hadn’t seen anyone about my teeth in thirteen years, I have a lot of shame around that and I didn’t want to see anyone who was going to make me feel worse about something I already felt terrible about. I didn’t want anyone speaking in medical language above my head around me—my imagination is way too active and I will diagnose myself with cancer if I start hearing numbers and medical terminology. I needed someone with great bedside manner and I needed drugs. Lots of drugs. I didn’t want anyone poking around my mouth unless I was full-blown on one.
When all was said and done, I had four cavities. One that wasn’t great, the rest were pretty mild. My gums were ripped up from years of brushing too hard. They said that my teeth were generally pretty great. I got a night guard to help with my grinding. Once the health stuff was over, I asked if I could get my teeth bleached. I thought I deserved a cosmetic reward for all of the bullshit I’d just put myself through. Not just the four different dental appointments in five weeks, but the thirteen years in which I completely tortured myself instead of just taking care of it.
I’d like to say that I’m always going to be better about this stuff now, that seeing how not bad this whole thing turned out to be was an important learning lesson for me in how fears are just illusions multiplied by your imagination but I’m not sure. I know that there’s a weird bump on my thigh that’s probably a cyst and I haven’t felt compelled to look into it. I know that I need to see a dermatologist about some questionable freckles and that it’s time to get my vision tested again. But one thing at a time, I guess. As long as it doesn’t take thirteen years to get around to it, I’m making some sort of progress.