I have a recurring dream in which I have a loose tooth.
Damn, I think to myself. I’m too old for this. Okay; I’ll just take out this one tooth, and no one will notice.
So I wiggle the tooth, and little by little it becomes looser and looser, and then it falls out. Mission accomplished. Except, in a weird turn of events, the tooth isn’t the only thing that wants free of my jaw. There’s another loose tooth, and another, and then a piece of bone I can’t recognize, and then another, and suddenly all this bone and enamel has come from my mouth.
Damn, I think to myself. I never knew there was this much jaw in a jaw.
I wake up feeling hot and cold, my heart pounding. I feel my face, tapping my jaw to make sure it’s still solid, running my tongue over my teeth. All twenty-eight, still intact. I lay back down and replay the dream in my head, cringing at the memory, the feeling, of pulling teeth out of my jaw.
I don’t remember when this fear of dental injury first started, but in the past few years I’ve noticed I carry a certain squeamishness around teeth. Odontophobia, I’ve found it’s called. Maybe it’s due to a few things:
The time I was five and an older kid told me about how he’d knocked out his two front teeth on the handlebars of his bike. I remember cupping my hands over my mouth and thinking, that will never happen to me, you barbarian.
The time I was eight and a dentist extracted one of my baby teeth. The tooth died right in my mouth and wouldn’t budge to let the new teeth grow in. The tooth was gray. They gave me a tiny red plastic treasure chest to put it in. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a child.)
The time I was fifteen and got braces (thank you dead gray tooth) and felt wire cutters just a little too close to my teeth for comfort.
The time I was seventeen and got the braces off, and they had to scrape cement off my teeth. (Scrape. Cement. Off my teeth.)
The time I was eighteen and I got all four of my wisdom teeth out, which were so impacted in my gums that I had to be drugged into a deep sleep while the oral surgeon cut them out, and I was in pain for a week and looked like a chipmunk for two, and they gave me all four wisdom teeth to take home in a sandwich bag. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a college freshman.)
The time I confided to my best friend that my greatest fear is a razor somehow, magically, coming into contact with my teeth and… I don’t know, shaving them? And every time she mimes shaving her teeth like it’s some kind of joke just to bother me, and how my mouth tastes like vinegar every time, and how she’s not even miming it the way I really imagine and fear it, but I’m definitely not telling her how I really envision it, because best friends are terrible people when they know your greatest fear.
(It’s not a joke Jennifer!)
And then the dental hygienist wonders why I don’t floss enough. Haven’t my teeth been through enough, lady? Have mercy!
Clearly I have some deep-seated tooth trauma I need to take care of. And the funny thing is, I didn’t realize how much until I wrote out my list of tooth complaints just then. It’s funny how the stuff that bothers you, the memories and fears, lurk in your subconscious and only peek out from time to time, like when you have a weird dream about pulling bone from your jaw or when your best friend asks if you want to brush your teeth with a Venus razor. (Shut up Jennifer!)
This isn’t only true of teeth, either. There are several areas in my life where I’m coasting along, doing my own thing, and then a stray word from someone else or an unfamiliar circumstance or a random memory in my head sends me on a road of cringy anxiety.
Just this week I got to the bottom of tender subject that has been bothering me for months. I was talking to my husband, thinking out loud, and suddenly the list of complaints spilled out, and it led me, like a map, to the real root of the problem (root. teeth. hm).
It was awful and wonderful and painful and cathartic. Like pulling out a tooth, wiggling and wiggling and feeling sharp jabs of pain, then finally taking a deep breath and pulling. It hurts, a lot. But then the pain is worth it, because the pain has gotten you somewhere, and like that dead tooth from when I was eight, there’s now room to grow.
There’s room for a beautiful smile.
(I still don’t understand the red plastic treasure chest, though.)