How to Take Care of Your Teeth

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I’ve always thought teeth — as individuals, or as a concept — were kind of, I don’t know, hip? Like, a character in a Wes Anderson film might have a little tooth in a little jar that she keeps in a knapsack, along with a manual about toasters, fleece socks, and a vinyl single of “I Hear A Symphony” by the Supremes. I also love the WORD “teeth.” Combs can have teeth, so can arguments. Teeth are multifaceted.

But I didn’t take particularly good care of mine. I mean, I did fine. I did the same as you probably do. I brushed them every day, and I flossed whenever the opportunity presented itself (like, when suddenly I was made aware of a piece of clean floss), and I went to the dentist when I was a child.

And as a child, I want to note, I hated the dentist. The dentist was always telling me I wasn’t doing a good enough job, and I got cavities constantly. Every time I got a cavity he would say, “CAVITY!” Like he’d just won a prize on a game show. My mom, gentle soul that she is, took me to the toy store after we went to the dentist, and that was the only redeeming thing about that otherwise hellish experience.

My sister Alexis, to contrast, cleaned her teeth All. The. Time. Alexis had (and has) the whitest teeth. There was no competing with her. She Sonicare-d the hell out of her teeth multiple times a day, and bought Crest White Strips for a little while. I think I thought she took such good care of her teeth partially to prove to me how much better she was than me. It turns out, I learned later, that Alexis just really, really likes clean teeth. (And clean everything. She’s one of those people who washes her sheets EVERY WEEK. That’s how much you’re supposed to wash them, according to Good Housekeeping, but COME ON! Only really real grown-ups do that.)

I always thought that the major consequence I would face for not taking more obsessive care of my teeth was that I would lose to my sister. I was fine with this punishment: I also lost to her at contests like “who is better at figuring out how to set up the VCR” and “who will always win at Catan.” I went about my merry way. “I’ll win some other unspoken const,” I thought.

Years passed. I moved to New Orleans. In New Orleans, my teeth started to bother me for the first time in my life. I didn’t know exactly what to do; I went to Walgreen’s and purchased something called a “tooth kit,” which contained some gel that sort of numbed your gums, floss, a little piece of plastic to push on your teeth, and probably some other generally useless items. I bought Advil and waited for the pain to pass. Here is the thing about tooth pain: It does not pass.

Tooth pain gets worse. It gets worse and worse until nothing will quell it and you can’t sleep. I can’t imagine what people did before there were dentists or fluoride; I feel like they probably had this problem all the time, and they had to have their S.O.s pull their teeth out with sticks. I’m so glad to live in the future. On the other hand, in the NEXT future, maybe there will be some kind of preventative tooth treatment that will make it so that tooth pain is nonexistent ALL the time. And someone will blog on her hologram-blog-machine that she feels bad for people who lived in the past and had to go to the dentist and encounter fluoride all the time.

Anyway, I went to the dentist. I didn’t have dental insurance, so I just went to the dentist that was closest to my house, which was in a strip mall. This dentist was full of people who didn’t have insurance, and many of them also seemed to have tooth pain. I walked up to the counter and said I would be paying in cash and that I needed help ASAP. I had to wait for three hours in the waiting room, and they didn’t even have any good magazines: Just a scroungy Highlights (which someone was reading) and a Golf Digest. 

When it was finally my turn, the dentist looked at the tooth that was bothering me and said, “Oh yeah! I can see the cavity. I can fix that!” He either didn’t use anesthetic or didn’t use it correctly. I could feel everything. This was the worst experience of my life, and I sobbed quietly and uncontrollably while he dug into my tooth nerve. But after it was all over, it was all over. My tooth wasn’t bothering me anymore and I went on my way.

Years passed. Then, one day, while I was sitting in my office at Langston Hughes Academy, I bit into a Laffy Taffy and a chunk of one of my back molars popped out. It didn’t hurt, but it was really gross. I didn’t want to go back to the strip mall dentist; my boss recommended someone in Metairie, and since I had dental insurance by then, I decided to give it a try. 

This dentist was awful in totally different ways. The posters on the wall were all way off topic. One was about skiing. One was about a gardener. These are fine posters, I guess, but they really have no place at a dentist. The dentist himself was painfully middle aged and average as far as white men go. He asked run-of-the-mill white guy questions like, “So, do you have kids?” And, “What do you like to cook at home?” He dealt with my teeth as middle-agedly and averagely as you would have expected. He wasn’t mean about my teeth, but he wasn’t nice. He dealt with my problems, and I saw him three times to get other cavities filled.

Years passed. We moved to Chicago, and dentistry didn’t feel all that important. There were other things to do, like buy a coat, or figure out the best hot dog. (Not for me, of course; lifetime vegetarian over here. But you know, sometimes your friends come to visit and they want to know about the best hot dog, and you don’t want to seem like that snobby type of vegetarian who sticks her nose up at ideas like hotdogs.) More years passed.

As years were passing, I want to emphasize this: I was STILL doing all the basic dental things. I was brushing my teeth with a real toothbrush and actual, foamy, minty toothpaste — even when I went camping. I still flossed. In fact, I flossed kind of a lot! This is because that FIRST dental catastrophe (remember that? From five paragraphs ago? Where I entered the pits of hell and had my tooth jackhammered by an apparent amateur in a strip mall with no novocaine?) had left me with a weird groove behind one of my teeth that was impossible for my tongue to ignore. The groove was deep and often got shreds of food wedged in it. Luckily, the “dentist” had done such a poor job that I could actually use my (weak, chemically mutilated) HAIR to floss it. I did this all the time, as a kind of a party trick. In hind’s sight, flossing with one’s (mutant, degraded) hair is probably not actually that great for one’s teeth. But forth I charged.

I assumed that I was doing the bare minimum amount that I needed to do to ensure that my teeth would stay basically fine. I was never trying to have the Beyonce of teeth, or even the Kelly Rowland of teeth. I was ok with it if my teeth auditioned for The Voice and failed to turn a chair. Just so long as the coaches would say, “It’s OK, you’ve got the average human amount of talent, and if you were to work really hard, you COULD be extraordinary.” 

Also, I just want to say, there were like four years of my life where I lived with people who didn’t eat sugar, and so I only ate sugar in secret under my covers while also binge watching a secret show such as “Say Yes to the Dress.” When you’re not outwardly eating sugar, you’re not eating as much sugar as all those other Twizzlers-chompers and M&M-munchers you see on the trains and featured on sitcoms. So I assumed that was earning me some teeth points, too.

I went three and a half years without going to the dentist, even though I knew (because the second bad dentist told me) that I had "a few" "little" cavities that I would (probably!) need to have taken care of at some point.

Then it started to become just a teensy bit painful to eat bread.

Then it wasn’t just a teensy bit, and the problem wasn’t only with bread. The problem was with literally anything that wasn’t a leaf. And the pain was UNREAL.

But look: This was only a problem having to do with ONE TOOTH, so I figured if I spent the rest of my life chewing on just the other side of my mouth, things would be fine.

The trouble is, sometimes a person cannot be so “chew”-sy (lol - get it?). Every once in a while you’re driving to a cool comedy show and you’re having a little bit of stale popcorn from a bag, and you’re thinking about comedy, and about why are men in comedy all such ass-sacks, and about how maybe you could be a great comedian even still even now that you’re in your thirties, and all of this while you’re chewing, and suddenly you accidentally chew with the Devil Tooth (as you have come to refer to it). This EXACT THING happened to me, kind of a lot. And the pain did not stay uniformly “pretty bad.” It increased exponentially, seemingly with each passing day.

At some point, I could not go through the day without having a migraine headache because of this damn tooth. It was a real problem. I told my writing class about this problem last year, and a student whose entire life was in obvious shambles — new haircut every week, losing weight a ton of weight, writing only about cocaine and Charlie CXC and exactly how she would murder certain exes — said to me, “Um, that’s really fucked up and you need to fix that. That’s what self-care MEANS.” When the person whose life most obviously requires a little fixing gets herself together enough to tell you to fix yourself, you have to wonder if maybe you’ve crossed a certain line. 

So I went to the dentist. I chose a dentist recommended to me by the great Jill Riddell, whom I love possibly more than any other living person, and whose advice is 100% always all the time exactly correct. “You will love this dentist and you will have a pillowy and serene experience there,” said Jill. And this ended up being somewhat important, because it turns out that I am kind of traumatized about the dentist.

Like, I couldn’t sleep the night before my appointment. I was too freaked out. I showed up at Jill’s allegedly nice and untraumatizing dentist with dark circles and a cartoon frown.

Jill was basically correct (see?), and this dentist was nice. She reminded me of one of those gold wrapped Harry & David pears that are in catalogues this time of year: beautiful, fantastically sweet, sort of healthy, and probably more expensive than you’re expecting. But niceness can only take a person so far, and after a half hour of pleasantries and casual x-raying, she began a sentence with, “I think I’m going to have to be blunt with you.”

Things in my mouth were bad. It wasn’t just this one pesky tooth that caused the headaches: another one of my teeth was all the way dead, several had massive decay heading right towards my nerves, and I had at least one cavity in each and every one of my teeth. This was bad news. The price tag was worse news: Whatever way you bent it, this was going to cost me in the neighborhood of $12,000 — and that, the pear dentist said, was a conservative estimate.

Dental insurance is a confounding concept; people talk about it like it’s a make-or-break factor in accepting a job offer, but who really knows what it entails? I’ll tell you, friends: dental insurance entails very little. It will pay for you to get your teeth cleaned, and it will sometimes give you a deductible for minor cavity-caused procedures. It almost never involves itself with the really expensive (and important) dental work. And also, let me add, dental work is not like a sofa — you can’t buy some of it now and pay for it over the stretch of a few years. Dental work has to be paid for here and now, and who cares if you just bought a house or just had a fire or just got married or just finished grad school, Sophie.

Pear dentist (I’m calling her this lovingly, by the way — she’s definitely the best dentist I’ve ever had; probably the best one in town) also told me that, heartbreakingly, she could see that my at-home game had been adequate (score!), but that those every-six-months dentist cleanings are not optional when it comes to keeping your teeth clean. I basically have zero friends (hi, independent Millennials!) who go to the dentist for “a bi-yearly cleaning,” and if there are some outliers, they aren’t talking about it NEARLY enough.

I will insert a paragraph here about how my friend Riot told me that there’s a mystical-sounding solution to cavities and decay that doesn’t involve corporate dentistry called “remineralization,” and Riot is probably right. And maybe I should have not been so hasty in scheduling all this dental work and maybe this method would have worked for me. Maybe I’ll still get into it, I don’t know. The message of, “Yo, you should think about your teeth, twentysomething person” remains in tact.

I’ll tell you what: whether or not this is a politically correct stance, I really wish someone had told me to go get my teeth cleaned more often. I wish someone had said, “Your teeth aren’t going to get better, they’re going to get worse; so you should take care if it now before it costs you $12,000.” Because it does seem fairly clear that a lot of this pain and nonsense could have been prevented if I’d stayed slightly more on top of things.

I decided to get a few of my teeth removed. It’s a lot cheaper than getting them replaced. I have no regrets about this; I don’t miss those teeth, and I don’t see myself getting new ones any time soon. But just to get your teeth pulled out costs close to $1,000 per tooth, and it really, really hurts. If you’re wanting to open your mouth all the way for any reason in the week following a tooth removal, forget about it. Honestly, my last tooth surgery was three months ago and my jaw still aches.

This is a cautionary tale, people. If you’re putting your teeth off, stop doing that. Just stop. Go to the dentist and have them tell you you’re fine and that your teeth aren’t as bad as Sophie’s genetically are, if that’s what it takes. I just don’t want for years to pass and then for you to have to pass up some huge traveling opportunity because you are broke because your teeth have failed you. That’s all I’m really trying to say here.