Thursday, October 17, 2013


I hear people say sometimes (and these people are usually high-school students with a romantic view of world history) that they wish they lived in another era. Maybe in the time of Shakespeare, maybe the roaring 20s, possibly just the 50s and 60s when real-life Mad Men roamed the earth smoking cigarettes and bedding married women. These times-gone-by would perhaps be a nice place to visit, but I for one could never live there.

Because in an era without advanced dentistry, I would not have a single tooth in my head.

At my first dental appointment, when I was only three years old, I had nine cavities in my baby teeth. Or so the story goes. Our local dentist worked out a plan with my mom to fill these a few at a time over a series of months and told her that I would probably have weak teeth for life, a trait inherited from my parents, who wore partials and full dentures.

Partially inherited from my parents. Partially inherited from drinking Coke out of my baby bottles as a toddler.

The plan went awry when I decided that the dentist's life had been too easy up to that point and made it my mission to even that score at the first filling. To this day, I don't know what possessed me. (Could it be...Satan?) I was a well-behaved child in every other venue. But for some reason, I took great joy in making drilling as difficult as possible for the good doctor and his staff. I screamed. I kicked. I refused to open my mouth. I cried about pain I had had way too much Novocaine to technically feel. After the first few appointments not going well, the dentist sent my mother home with a prescription for happy pills I was to take 30 minutes before each remaining procedure.

Yes, kids, I had a prescription for Valium at three.

His mistake was suggesting that the first dose be administered in the office by him so that the timing would be right. Have you ever tried to give a pill to a pissed-off cat? It was like that. Except that the cat in this scenario could yell louder.

My mother tells me I couldn't possibly be remembering this right, but I swear that at one point the dentist pinched my nose shut to get me to open my mouth and poured a dissolved tablet down my gullet. I admit this could be a hallucination, because, well...Valium for a three-year-old. But it was the most frightening moment of my life up to that point, so whether it was the medication or PTSD, I behaved angelically for every appointment thereafter.

Though that also might have been due to the copious amounts of nitrous oxide pumped into my nose. Either way, I spent most of my childhood dentist visits high. Drugs are bad, kids. Unless you have to get a broken molar repaired when you're nine, and then they're awesome.

This Monday saw me back at the dentist to get one of my oldest remaining fillings removed and replaced with a crown. The tooth in question had cracked, and my current dentist discovered a deep cavity underneath. While in the chair getting news that my tooth was more a disaster than previously thought, not sedated but kinda wanting to be, I had a flashback to my childhood dentist breaking the news of tooth decay:

You have some bugs in your tooth. I just need to dig them out with my drill. All you'll feel is a little pinch.

No wonder I fought this guy. Comparing dental decay to bugs? In your face? Not cool, dude. Not cool.

Hours later, still numb and swollen (my current dentist's philosophy is "enough injected anesthesia to take down an adult elephant"), I realized that every biting surface is now covered in composite resin or a porcelain crown. (Years ago, I lost the gold molar that gave me street cred. I looked like such a bad-ass when I yawned.) As these begin to fail, I wonder what will be next. I think of my dad, who had every tooth pulled in his first weeks in the army and who wore dentures the rest of his life. Of my mom, who had a bridge to replace most of the molars on one side of her mouth and failing crowns on her two front teeth. Of a host of aunts and uncles who don't even bother with such formalities and have fewer teeth than they do dogs sleeping under their front porches. Is that next? Will my worst nightmare, a recurring gem where I spit out my own teeth as though they're Chiclets, come true? Despite the wonderful advances of modern dentistry, are my genetically-inferior, Coke-marinated teeth doomed?

And will I ever regain full feeling on the left side of my face? Only time will tell, I suppose.

Maybe innovation in dentistry will keep up with my bad biters and I will become the first member of my family to go to the grave with all of her natural teeth. My parents, who sacrificed a lot of time, money, and sanity the first 22 years of my life to help me keep my mouthful of problems, would be as proud of this feat as of my college degrees. It was certainly a more painful and dramatic process. (And this is coming from a girl who suffered through a philosophy of religion class.)

If not, and if extractions are my inevitable endgame, one thing is for certain--I will not fight the Valium. Lesson learned.

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