Wednesday, December 05, 2012


When I was in high school my orthodontist, Dr. Gardner, joked that he'd started taking my before & after dental impressions with him to orthodontics conferences.  The better to show, he said, all the things that can go wrong in a kid's mouth and how he brilliantly put them back to rights.  Sadly, I'm pretty sure that he wasn't actually joking, and that he really did take my mouth with him to these things.

First, I had a huge gap between my upper and lower teeth caused in part by a tongue thrust developed in my toddler years, and also by years of finger-sucking.* The remedy for this problem, before the teeth could even be worked on, was to install a "fixed habit appliance," also known as a tongue rake or finger rake or  hay rake or just, quite simply, the rake. This rake had sharpened wires that curved spikily upwards and back from a crosspiece attached to the inside of my bottom front teeth.  These wire spikes oh so subtly retrained my tongue to stop going where it wasn't supposed to go.  Tears and bloody tongue and rage ensued. For the better part of 4th grade. But now I can swallow without sticking my tongue between my teeth (mostly) so I guess it worked.

After that came years of wires and brackets and braces and retainers and the ubiquitous and dreaded "headgear" that was practically a suburban rite of passage back in those illustrious '80s.**

The worst of the next six years following the installment of the rake was several months spent at the mercy of another relatively benign-sounding orthodontic device: the "palatal expander," also known in some circles as the skeletal expander. This little lovely had the fun job of expanding my upper jaw to make room for my overcrowded upper teeth.*** It involved a dental plate fitted to the roof of my mouth, comprised of two halves and an "expansion screw" which had to be turned twice daily with a tiny metal key. This literally widened my head, caused excruciating (if fleeting) headaches with each turn of the screw, and was neither a good way to start nor a good way to end a day.

Regular old braces were pretty easy going after these two contraptions, and eventually my teeth magically straightened and Dr. Gardner could congratulate himself on a job well done. (And straight they remained for a good few years, though now they've slipped back into a subtle, more natural state of overlapping asymmetry.)

Recently, however, I've been needing quite a lot of work done on my disconcertingly rotting teeth. My new dentist asked me early on in this now-going-on-four-months endeavor, "Why didn't you come in sooner?"  My only answer, and he looked a little taken aback by this, was that I'm used to a lot of mouth pain and learned early that it's normal and to be expected. (And also, who likes going to the dentist? Other than my sometimes weird boyfriend, I mean.)

Last week, mid-afternoon while typing away in my library office, a temporary crown came tumbling out of my mouth.  I called my dentist's office in a panic, wanting to go right away to have it put back in, but they were booked for days and suggested I just buy some dental glue at the closest pharmacy and stick it back in myself. Being at work and shaking with anxiety, I couldn't get it in right and so spent the rest of the day closed-mouthed and sweating, tongue irresistibly poking at the hole -- that gaping alien void where once had been a tooth.

Evan met me at the door that night and took one look at me and gave me a hug, asked if I was okay.  I explained that the only thing worse than the already paranoia-inducing feeling of having an alien ceramic object cemented into one's mouth is the feeling of having it fall out of one's mouth, of trying and failing to ignore the empty space left behind.

Monday afternoon I went in for yet another dental appointment, this time to have them remove the now-crooked temporary crown, do a more detailed impression for a permanent crown, and finally re-cement the temporary falling-out one.  They warned me it might be uncomfortable despite being numbed up first, but I wasn't expecting it to hurt quite that much; to hurt in similar ways to when I was a kid and trying my damnedest to not let Dr. Gardner or my parents see me cry.

It hurt so much, the taking of this impression, that I climbed out of the dentist chair afterwards in a daze, started to walk out without my jacket and bag, almost forgot to check in with the receptionist about my next appointment. It hurt so much that I desperately wanted to call Evan on my walk to the train -- to whine and moan and beg for sympathy -- but couldn't bear the thought of moving my face enough to produce coherent words.

I made it home in one piece of course, downed one of the extra-strength Motrin from the root canal back in September, eventually had some soup for dinner. The Motrin kicked in at last, my power over the spoken word came back, and I stopped feeling quite so broken, quite so sorry for myself, quite so mired in my ten-year-old self too afraid to talk for fear of letting on how much it hurt.

Now, just two more appointments until this saga is complete: an initial, and then a final, fitting of the permanent crown. But the thing is (and I can't quite acknowledge or fully get my head around this), apparently I need another root canal soon in a tooth on the other side of my mouth.

*I sucked that finger so ferociously and continually that it was constantly wrinkled and gross and awful, to the point that it earned its own nickname, my Awful, as in,"Emily Kate McNeil! Get your Awful out of your mouth!"

**Some of us, so certain we were fated to endure the horror that is headgear, were known to unfold paper clips and shape them into vague mouth-shapes and tuck them behind our lips, preparing for the pain and humiliation to come.

***My dad joked for years about how funny it was that my problem, of all people, was having a too-small mouth -- given the vast amounts of noise that came out of it, you see.

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