In 1st grade we had this tooth chart. It had everyone’s names written on it and a little space where Mrs. Stoleson would put a little smiling molar when you lost a tooth. Lots of kids had lots of teeth stickers. I did not get any tooth stickers. I was small for my age and my mouth showed it.
My grandpa is a strange little Colombian man who eats fish eyes and bone marrow and everyone told me stories about the time he held down my Tia Lyat and pulled her first tooth out of her mouth. When I walked by him, I smiled closed-mouthed.
I cried every time I lost a tooth. It always hurt. There was always too much blood and too much open space. I cried every New Year’s Eve and every birthday too. The worst was when I turned 10. I would have to be a two-digit age for the rest of my life, that is, unless I somehow made it to one hundred, I told my mom.
My twelve-year-old molars started growing in when I got into college.
One of the most common dreams that people have is that their teeth are falling out. It’s one of the most frequent stress dreams, being associated with feeling powerless or out of control. It might also mean that you’re afraid of losing something. Once, I wished lost-tooth dreams on a boy who broke my heart.
I’ve never had a lot of tooth loss dreams, but the feelings in your body that accompany anxiety disorders and depression remind you of these feelings all the time.
I get a lot of cavities even though I take good care of my teeth. Every time I would go to the dentist when I was young, crying as they anesthetized the pink of my mouth with a thin needle, my mom would cry next to me and apologize for giving me her teeth. She always had dental issues, always had cavities, always told me how scary root canals were. I remember many times when I was young, the entire side of her mouth would swell up and she would stay like that until we could afford to send her to the dentist. One time she got her tooth fixed by a sketchy man in my grandpa’s kitchen.
My mom apologizes for giving a lot of things to me: her bad vision, her nail biting, her over the top love of sweets. When I finally went to the doctor because I couldn’t stop crying, they asked me if depression and anxiety ran in my family. Apparently, there’s some genetic stuff to the feeling of a blank page over your brain. No one had ever told me they had anxiety or depression, so I marked off no. I think the problem is that my mom never had a word for it that way I do.
It’s weird, the way I attach the blame to my mom when everyone says I look like the spitting image of my father. The other day, I sat on the couch with him and he opened his mouth, pointed to his canines. “See these? They’re both fake,” he said. One time he told me that it hurts so much to be alive and I felt that.
A tooth for a tooth. By the skin of your teeth. As bad as pulling teeth. Lying through your teeth. Biting off more than you can chew. Fighting tooth and nail. Sink your teeth into it. Set your teeth on edge. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
The summer of 2015, I went to the dentist and they decided they were going to pull the last baby tooth in my mouth. I was scared because the adult tooth hadn’t grown in yet and I didn’t want to go to college with an empty space in my mouth. They promised it would grow in fast.
The dentist put the laughing gas mask over my face and as they wrapped the pliers around my tooth, I pulled the mask off. I don’t know why exactly. I think there was a part of me that wanted to keep some sort of control as adults in white coats sat over me yanking at bones in mouth that were not ready to come out. When the tugging started and my body spasmed, the dentist realized she had put the anesthetic shot in the wrong nerve. “Once I heard a story of a dentist who put a shot in the wrong nerve and bam, their patient’s eye was numb,” she said as she tried to put the needle in the right place this time.
I remember the cracking sound. And then I remember the dentist saying, “oh no,” and I sat up and said, “oh no?” and they said “don’t worry, you’re fine.” The cracking sounds continued and I felt no pain but I heard pain. I felt them fish around in the soft spots of my mouth with sharp objects and extract pieces of white.
“I think you cracked my tooth,” I said, unsure of whether or not they could understand me when I spoke and someone said, “we cracked your old tooth, but it’s gone now. Your new tooth is fine.” This was the beginning of an adulthood, a womanhood maybe, that meant when I stood up for myself, when I told someone to stop, when I told someone that something was wrong, they would just keep going anyway.
The bacteria that decay teeth need a living body to exist. As soon as a body dies, so does that bacteria that causes bad teeth. So live the teeth. This is why a dead human skeleton has better teeth than me.
I’m known in my friend group as the one who never goes to the doctor. I grew up with a dad who always told me to suck it up, to quit crying, and it’s not that he was a terrible person; it’s just that we didn’t have medical insurance for a while. We drank a lot of tea and honey, stayed home from school, dripped garlic oil in our ears. Dad made green chili out of jalapenos and we said that it burned the sick away. I thought I had the world’s lowest pain tolerance.
This year, when I break down crying in class from the pain in my mouth, I know that the free school clinic is just downstairs and so I go. The nurse at the front desk explains that there are no available appointments but when she sees the swelling in my face, she takes me to the back room and looks at my mouth. sticks a thermometer beneath my tongue. “It looks like an infection,” she says, “and if you have a fever, that means it may have spread to your brain.” There is no fever, but she sends me to an emergency dentist anyway. “How much ibuprofen are you taking?” she asks, and I tell her one an hour and she laughs and says, “you’re a little thing, honey, but that pain calls for more than one.”
The emergency dentist, a little man who speaks to me in Spanish that covers me like a comfort blanket takes an x-ray of my jaw and points at the black and white pictures as he explains what is happening inside my mouth. The tooth is fractured. It is growing in upside down. It had become infected when it was broken and had begun to grow a second tooth out of it. “Have you cracked nuts with this tooth?” he asks. “Or has someone taken a hammer to your face?”
Fixing the tooth will take four months. First they will pull it out. Then they will put powder to grow new bone inside the hole because I don’t have anymore in there. Then they will take my own white blood cells and fill the hole so I can begin to grow new bone because I don’t have anymore in there. Then they will put a ceramic implant inside the growing gums and after four months, they will put a crown on top of that. I’m two weeks in right now. I can’t have solid food for another two weeks. Calorie counter websites say I’m losing weight on track for an “extreme diet”.
When the nurse is taking my blood, I get lightheaded. The dentist’s office looks pixelated and I feel like I have headphones on. I start to sway in my seat. When they are finished, when the needle is out of my arm, the nurse leads me to a new chair and lies me back. Then she brings in three granola bars and three bottles of water. She drapes a blanket over me and turns Switchfoot over the speakers and the three of us have a snack before they wash out my mouth and begin the surgery.
After surgery my mom calls the dentist, crying. She feels bad that she cannot be here with me. “Your daughter will be fine,” he tells her. “The pain your she has been feeling and sitting in—your daughter is superhuman.”
My friends and I have this inside joke now. When you have one bad thing happen to you on top of another, we call it a “tooth on a tooth” after the doubletooth extracted from my mouth.
Something crazy. The x-ray of my mouth showed that the abscess on my tooth reached all the way up to my sinuses. There was a black shadow over the cavity between my mouth and my nose and that was the abscess. It was why I always got sinus infections. The dentist explained that the pain from the surgery would come alongside bloody noses as I learned how to breathe correctly again.
Something else crazy. An abscessed tooth can mess with your brain chemistry. It’s known to cause anxiety disorders and depression. And while I’ve had mental health problems longer than I’ve had an abscessed tooth, I wonder if maybe this thorn in my side will be lifted a little. Last week when I cried in my bed, I was able to wipe my eyes and sit up and finish my homework. Maybe it’s a placebo or maybe it’s chemistry. This December I told someone that I felt God tell me that He was going to take the depression soon. He did it once for a couple of months and I learned how to breathe correctly again. Maybe that’s too spiritual and crazy, or maybe this is what He meant by soon.
My mouth is an inside joke now. When I got my tooth extracted, my friends celebrated. “Let’s extract the depression!” they said. “Let’s pull the anxiety. Let’s pull the boy who keeps breaking your heart and the fear to get out of bed and the anger at yourself.”
And at night when my heart gets the darkest, maybe I can stop. Maybe I can listen to myself when I say that it hurts. Maybe I can close my eyes, maybe I can grip it and pull it and acknowledge the hole. Acknowledge the blood. Acknowledge how much is hurts to heal. Let it heal.