I had my first-ever root canal today. I’ve heard so many horror stories about this dental procedure, that I delayed it far longer than I needed to. Yet, my dentist told me after it was over, that it was ‘just the right time to do it’. Any later and things would have been much worse. However, I am not new to dental health procedures.
I had an awkward jawline. Too many teeth for too small a facial structure is how the doctors described it. Ugly rabbit face is how my schoolmates described it. And thumb-sucking as a child had given me uneven piano keys for front teeth that stuck out even when I thought I had my mouth firmly shut, getting me out in laughter challenge games where you weren’t to reveal the bateesi (32 pearly white).
I did grow up in the 80s so even with my progressive upbringing, I was aware of how important a role appearance plays. Eleven-year-old me decided that braces were my only option and I asked my parents. I don’t remember any discussion and it’s not because I got everything I demanded.
Owning my reactions to pain
When I was very young, probably under a year old, my father explained to me that I would have to face an injection. It would hurt, he said. I had to face it. But if I wanted, he would hold my hand. Apparently, I took my baby’s vaccinations without the bawling and with a single tear quietly sitting on my eyelid. I never cried for any medical procedure after that. Even our family doctor who had detected my mom’s pregnancy and had seen me, poopy diapers and all was surprised. Even if I was mad with my father on that day, when the doctor said “Injection”, I’d get ready and dad’s hand would be there to hold mine.
When people try to reassure someone who is going to face pain, they often lie to distract the person. Thus, when the hurt finally lands, it’s doubled because of the sense of betrayal in the world you believed you trusted. Knowing you are going to hurt doesn’t reduce the pain but it does help you gather your senses to prepare for it.
I think because of this, when I told my parents that I wanted better-looking teeth, they didn’t question my judgment. The dental clinic listed out the foods I wouldn’t be allowed to eat for years and how much it would hurt. Dad said,
It was four years of no chewing gum, guava (my favourite fruit) or chakli. I slipped up once and ate a guava (I was 13, after all). I woke up the next morning with blood clots in my mouth. The dental professional said, “You said you wouldn’t.” I never broke a promise again. My promises are after all, to myself and what would I be if I let myself down?
So my dental health journey has been rife with cavity fillings, tooth extractions, barb-wire braces that tore the insides of my cheeks, torture device rubber bands for my molars to tame my front teeth, a plastic palette strung with metal wires that I had to take out each time I ate (the very year I started college). I’m not new to facing the dentist’s chair. That said, I assumed that this part of my life was over for good as other issues of the heart brain and other parts of the body took over. So perhaps other people’s shock anxieties snuck in.
Dental health as mental health
Dental issues had a brief resurgence in the late 2000s. A friend from Landmark Education had called me. He was in training to be a Forum leader and had to conduct a Forum workshop with graduates to qualify. He asked if I’d be a part of it. I was curious to see how my kind, gentle friend would be in the role of a rigorous, sometimes ruthless Forum leader.
During that event, I broke down at the mic. I don’t even remember what prompted it. But I do remember his eyes full of kindness, watching me disintegrate and then struggle to collect myself as I choked out,
He smiled and said,
If it had been anyone else, in any other situation, I would not have believed them. But when I looked into his eyes, it was as if he had wiped away all the shock & confusion that obscured my mind that I called pain. All that was left for me to do was to embrace that reality.
A little later, I realised the flush of heat that had warmed my face was still burning. My head felt like it would explode. Site zero was my tooth. I was burning up. I spoke to a volunteer during the break and told them I needed to go home as I wasn’t well. My friend-Forum Leader came to me immediately. He said,
So I did. And what would you know, by the end of that evening, I felt completely fine. No trace of fever or toothache.
Since then, I’ve associated dental health with mental health. No wonder then that within a couple of months of turning 30 and walking away from a life I had worked so hard to build to venture into the grand unknown, I needed my first wisdom tooth extraction.
I only realised how my menstrual health mirrors my physical well-being a few years ago. So of course it makes post facto sense that the same would be true of other aspects of the health compartments as well. You just need to know how to read the signs the body sends you. It helps you anticipate the natural map of your body’s journey, so you are able to prepare to accept it. Acceptance helps so much.
Pain is a lampost
Yoga in my mid-20s brought me another lifelong lesson. The body is everything that is me. It needs to be heard, it deserves to be heard. Pain is data to be worked with, not a coloniser to be feared. Only go as far as you’re able to and don’t torture yourself, my teacher used to say to me. Your body will go further someday, just not today. Be kind. It helped me to trust my body. I’m still learning every day.
Western medicine backed by Big Pharma and capitalism is based on pathologising every aspect of living. I cannot shut it out of my life. But I can hold my counsel, take a few minutes to breathe & think before being herded into fad medications, vanity procedures and fearmongering diagnoses. I ask every doctor I’ve seen, when the final treatment is complete, what I can do to be more proactive in avoiding illness. Some of them show annoyance. If you care for your health, how will I earn is the question in their eyes. It tells me they’re only ever going to see me as a wallet.
But some of them are different. My gynaecologist has been a valued partner in my health for a decade now because of how she answers my questions. So has my endocrinologist. Yes, they are people, professionals, not just the person who prescribes for a UTI or monitors my thyroid. I found my way to the mental health diagnosis and support I needed this year because these two people guided me and I was able to trust them.
I believe that this goes back to learning very young that the best partners for your well-being are those who earn your trust with honesty. Honesty with empathy is a way to accord a person dignity. It says that I respect that you are strong enough to face life and I acknowledge it is hard so I will stand with you.
In today’s procedure, I asked my dentist to explain to me what was happening. He of the old school, is pretty gruff but seems to have gotten used to what I need. He explained that the nerve inside my tooth had gotten infected and was causing an ache throughout my jaw. He’d need to drill into the tooth and take the nerve out. The tooth would be dead after that but it would be functional for eating.
I briefly thought about a kid I knew with a yellow incisor which had died. But I shrugged it off realising that if I had to live the rest of my life with a yellowed tooth, I would still be okay. Better that than a painful, diseased white tooth. My politics of smile have evolved. My father had told me in the morning that it wouldn’t be too painful. Just the injection to numb would hurt a bit. But I remembered that from my childhood time in the dentist’s chair and I knew I’d be able to take that, no sweat.
Tattoos tell tales
I had forgotten about how much our fear reflexes kick in over sound too. When I got my first tattoo, I was thick in my early feminist rebellion of Girls-Who-Dont-Cry. I don’t exactly regret being taught to hold my tears. It helped me not succumb to the chains of traditional femininity where crying becomes the only recourse for power. By my 20s, gritting my teeth & bearing it with a smile had become a personality trait. But with that tattoo experience was pain actively sought, rather than for reasons that had to be done.
It was a journey into my own vulnerability. I learnt what it feels like when a man touches you with no predations (my tattooist). That should tell you just what a predatory world I lived in when it takes so much effort to cut through the shields women have to grow early. I also had a pleasant surprise in the form of the tattooist’s brother who stayed with me through the process, talking to me through every step. It was my first experience of male empathy. He told me,
I think about that often when I read about how women’s pain is frequently dismissed by Western medicine professionals. When the world won’t fight for me, I must equip myself with a stronger arsenal and that means bravely facing the truth.
During my second tattoo, I was accompanied by a close friend. I cried, I screamed and I made all sorts of faces. Because her presence allowed me to be vulnerable, I learnt a lot more from the experience than if I had had to have my No-tears shields up. I noticed just how much of my reaction was to the drilling sound of the tattoo machine. It would be a few years before I realised that what I always thought was my ticklishness, was actually trauma reactions to physical violations. The sound & feel of metallic vibrations are triggering. But given the journey of my relationship with pain, they also serve as hurricane lamps in my healing.
With all of this in mind, I readied myself for the procedure and said AAAAH. It was a weird feeling when he started drawing the nerve out of my mouth. At least I assume that was when it was happening since with anaesthesia, my mind is scripting based on sound & pressure of my dentist’s hands. I thought of something that has been repeating in my horoscope these past few days. It’s time to let go of what no longer serves you.
The goodbyes of the self
Earlier this week, my parents and I spoke about the fearful experience of getting a CT scan. We all experience different degrees of claustrophobia and vertigo. My mother closes her eyes and recites her religious chants in her head. In admiration, dad added, it works for her so I don’t even know if religion is that bad. I can’t bring myself to do this for myself. Religion is too fraught with violence & vitriol for it to be a handy companion.
What I did instead was to talk to the nerve that was being extracted from my tooth (inside my head, of course). You are a part of me. But it’s time to say goodbye. Thank you, I said, for the journey you’ve taken me through my whole life. And in that moment of letting go, I realised my body may house me but I don’t have to cling to parts of it as if losing them will reduce me.
Nails, hair, menstrual blood, teeth, skin, maybe even other organs. My mother has had three artificial implants in various organs to help her function and she had let go of one vital organ. My father and I have both lost our tonsils and various teeth. Are we any less because of these? Are we more bionic humans for the replacements? What we are is grateful for the relationship we’ve been able to have with all these parts of ourselves. And that can only happen when you face your body with honesty and empathy.