That Time I Cut a Bitch

I cut a bitch once.

And by "bitch," I'm referring to a ten-year-old boy.

It was 1990 at a small public elementary school in Newport Beach, California. We were in the fifth grade, seated in rows of school desks with faux woodgrain table tops. The metal feet of our chairs slid easily on the carpet's worn surface, and that particular day, two of my classmates decided that kicking my chair around during class was their activity of choice.

They were both boys. One of them, Ryan, was always messing with somebody or another. He wasn't the brightest student, though he was very devoted to his role as the Class Asshole. (Classhole?) He was the instigator on this particular day. The second boy, Loren, was a smart, nerdy, schlubby kid whose parents worked in brain research. He was sometimes the one being teased, so maybe he was eager to seize the opportunity to be on the other side of the equation.

I was a quiet student who followed the rules and liked to finish my work on time, not known for being a distraction in class. But this day, we had a substitute teacher. She didn't know us very well, and she was a stickler for the rules. The boys knew this and took full advantage of the situation. They kept waiting for her to turn her back to the classroom, at which point they'd kick my chair into the aisle between the desks. It was perfectly timed so that when she'd turn back to face the class my chair would be in motion, without any evidence of who'd done the moving. It looked like I was moving the chair myself, and our sub was becoming frustrated with me for causing a disturbance. Embarrassed and red-faced, I was too mortified to speak up and explain what was happening. No one else in class spoke up for me, either, though I'm sure it was apparent to everyone besides the teacher that I wasn't moving my own chair. The two boys thought it was hilarious, getting bolder in their timing, causing me to get in more and more trouble with the increasingly irritated teacher. I finally spoke, weakly, trying to explain what was happening. But it was no use. The boys denied it, putting on a believable show of innocence, and the teacher glared at me with intent. I felt abandoned, unprotected and unbelieved. The message was clear: I was alone.

It was time to take matters into my own hands.

Looking back now, it's not surprising that I would stand up for myself. I'm a do-it-yourself kind of girl. When I'm faced with an insurmountable problem, I find a creative way to solve it. When I was pregnant with our daughter, I became disillusioned with the hospital birth environment, so I changed course and hired a team of home birth midwives at 32 weeks along. When it came time for her to enter kindergarten, I toured a number of local schools and felt that the school system's reliance on standardized testing was damaging to a rich learning environment (plus I did my research and learned that an early emphasis on academics is bullshit), so I created our own private school in order to teach our kids at home. Later, dissatisfied with what our local homeschooling groups had to offer, I started my own.

And as a preteen in the 1990's, a time when multiple ear lobe piercings were the coolest, a girl I admired at school had two piercings on one side, and I was determined to have the same. My mom was a firm no on the topic, so I was left to contemplate a life with only one piercing in each ear. It didn't take long for me to decide that I would die if I couldn't have another piercing. So one morning I waited for her to leave for work, which gave me a short window of time to grab that particular bull by the horns. It took two ice cubes, a sewing needle, some rubbing alcohol, a strong will, and twenty sweaty minutes. But I prevailed, heading off to school that day with two piercings in my left ear, triumphant. Of course, it became infected almost immediately and I had to take out the earring so it could heal; but my mom got the message, loud and clear. Once it was healed up, she took me to get it redone by a professional (read: a slightly older teenager with a shitty mall job who'd been armed with a piercing gun and entrusted with the ear lobes of eager preteens). I also figured out how to get a tattoo without parental consent when I was sixteen years old. But that was a mistake: sixteen year olds aren't legally entrusted to make permanent decisions about their body for a lot of very good reasons, so I don't count that one as a win. Still, I'm very good at getting what I want if I've decided it's worthwhile, a trait that my friends and family have become all too familiar with.

But in 1990, none of those things had happened yet. Nobody knew what I was capable of, myself included. I was about to find out.

Looking around at my school supplies for something that could be weaponized, I didn't see much that could be of use. I eventually noticed that my pencil sharpener housed a tiny metal blade secured by two even tinier screws. Using the sharp end of my compass (which, in retrospect, would have made an excellent weapon), I turned the screws counter-clockwise to release the blade. I palmed it in my hand, waiting for the right moment. Adrenaline was pumping through my system. The next time one of the boys kicked out a leg to move my chair into the aisle once again, I would strike.

The teacher turned around to write on the chalkboard, and I knew what was coming. I didn't care which boy got it. Loren kicked out at the legs of my chair, and I struck like a rattlesnake. I sliced that bitch right in the thigh.

It wasn't much of a cut, because I didn't really want to hurt him. It was a shallow wound, not much worse than a fingernail scratch. But Loren reported me to the teacher, whose mouth dropped right open. She stared at me, unbelieving. She wasn't mad, exactly. But it was obvious that she Didn't Get Paid Enough For This Shit. At a loss for what to do, she sent all three of us to the principal's office.

I'd never been to the principal's office before, and I was terrified. I sat alone in a plastic chair while the principal spoke with the two boys, waiting for my turn. I was sure that I'd be sent home, or punished in front of the class, or otherwise reprimanded. But when my turn came to speak with the principal, he was kind to me. He asked me what happened, and once I had given him an honest account of the situation, he said that he was sorry that the substitute teacher hadn't kept the two boys from bullying me. He wanted me to think about my actions, emphasizing that violence is never the right answer, but that was all. He sent me back to the classroom to finish the rest of the school day. I left his office in shock, having expected something much worse.

As for the two boys, they'd both been sent home with an assignment: to think about what they'd done, and then write a one-page paper about why they shouldn't have done it.

Justice had prevailed.

I was incredibly lucky that I'd had such an understanding principal. As a modern parent with children in a public elementary school, it amazes me that an incident involving a razor blade (even a pathetically small one) didn't result in a suspension or even an expulsion. It happened just four years before the Zero Tolerance policy was signed into law in 1994 by Bill Clinton as part of the Gun-Free Schools ActNobody knows whether or not the policy has been effective at preventing school violence; but it's been very effective at causing students to drop out of school at higher rates and contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. It's been wonderful for disproportionately punishing black, Latino, and other children of color (especially when the police are called by the school). It's also been great for meting out harsh punishments for laughably minor incidents. A second-grader was suspended in 1997 because the pocket watch she brought to her school in Alexandria, Louisiana had a tiny 1" knife attached to it. It had been her grandfather's, and she wanted to show it to her classmates. In 1996, an 11-year-old girl was arrested and suspended in Columbia, South Carolina because she had packed a knife in her lunchbox so she could cut some leftover chicken with it. The girl brought it to her teacher's attention because she hadn't wanted to get in trouble. That same year, a 13-year-old in Humble, Texas was suspended for bringing a bottle of Advil to school. It was found in her backpack by a drug-sniffing dog while she was in gym class. She was an honor student. Also that year, a 14-year-old was expelled for "distributing drugs" after she gave her friend a Midol tablet. The friend who'd received the tablet was suspended for nine days, though it was only recorded in her permanent record as a three-day suspension because she agreed to go to drug counseling. Midol contains caffeine and acetaminophen. More recently, in Loveland, Colorado a seven-year-old boy was suspended in 2013 for throwing an imaginary grenade on the school playground. He was pretending to be a hero and "tossed the nonexistent weapon at imaginary evil forces in a box in order to save the world." He didn't actually throw anything. Earlier that year, a five-year-old girl was suspended in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania for talking about shooting her friends with a toy princess Hello Kitty bubble gun. She was suspended for ten days, though the school later shortened it to two, downgrading the offense from a "terroristic threat" to a "threat to harm others." She'd told her friends at recess, "I'll shoot you, you'll shoot me, and we'll all play together." She was waiting for the bus after kindergarten; she didn't have the toy with her at the time.

Considering that I actually cut someone with a real blade, it's astounding that I wasn't suspended or worse. According to the California Department of Education's Expulsion Matrix, I easily could have been expelled. I still feel shame about it, and I sometimes wonder about the boys who were involved. Did it leave a scar? Did they talk about me afterward? Do they even remember me at all? What did their parents think? Did Loren cry when he went home that day? I remember Loren as the Bitch Who Got Cut. But does he remember me as The Bitch Who Cut Me?

I'll never know, but I'll tell you one thing: nobody ever kicked my chair again.

A Year of Cleaning House

This weekend I'm celebrating my thirty-eighth year of life. It’s been quite a year, and I've learned more about myself and the world I live in than in the previous thirty-seven years combined.

I’ve let go of the things I thought I should be, and have instead embraced my truth. "Should" is a damaging concept. By getting honest with myself about where I was in my life, I've been better able to steer my ship toward the shore I truly want to reach. Before I was navigating in a storm with broken instruments; I wasn't doing it on purpose, and it was hard to admit it to myself. No one steers themselves into the rocks intentionally. Pride sunk the Titanic, and I was no different. It took a huge effort to overcome my pride, which is just fear in disguise. But once I admitted that I was being ruled by fear, I decided to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

It's hard to take an honest look at yourself, because it exposes all the cobwebs you think you cleared out years ago. And over time, those cobwebs have grown and contorted themselves into giant, overgrown forests full of rotting carcasses. It isn't pretty, and it doesn't smell nice.

But I'm not afraid of hard work. I know the value of chipping away at something overwhelming: you start in one corner of the room, and working square inch by square inch, you eventually find yourself in the opposite corner of a sparkling clean space. You turn around, take a look at the work you've done, and feel really good about yourself for doing it.

Of course, then you open the next door, and there's an entirely new room to clean.

So many people are scared of opening up their innermost rooms because they fear the cobwebs they'll find. And they're right: the things I found in my dark places were worse than anything I could have imagined. For more than three decades, every time I got the slightest glimpse of the mess, I shut the door again as quickly as I could. Out of sight, out of mind.

But if you've ever lived in a messy home, you know all too well that closing the door to a filthy room does nothing to clean it. The dirt gets a little dirtier, and the stains settle into permanent scars.  Is there anything more overwhelming than opening that door to have an honest look at the mess?

It took me thirty-seven years, but I finally mustered the courage to open the door. And once I was done cleaning that room, I opened another one. And another. Cleaning house is addicting in the best way, and I never intend to stop. I've got a lot more work to do, and it will take a lifetime to get to it all. Rather than being overwhelmed by that, I feel encouraged. Each room I clean is one less mess for my kids to inherit. I was taught to leave a space cleaner than I found it; so that's what I'm going to do, for as long as I'm able to do it.

Here's to opening doors.

A Woman’s Heart

A cyst suspected, growth disguised;
The tumor grows and swells inside

Devouring tissue, eating flesh
My organs ravaged, lump enmeshed

The truth arrives: they can’t be saved
A surgery must now be braved

I heal in silence, drugged and sore
A woman emptied, womb no more

What makes a woman? Does she bleed?
What lies beyond her fertile need?

The crone awaits; a fleck of youth
defies her, standing fierce in truth

My soul emboldened, self awake
A womb does not a woman make

Her arms outspread, her fears depart:
A woman’s worth is in her heart.

Things My Hands Have Made

My hands have made beautiful things.

Expressive and strong, my hands are the ambassadors of my heart. They’ve held my sweet babies, wiped away their tears, stroked their gleaming cheeks. Those little loves of mine are the best things I’ve ever used my hands for.

When I was a child myself, I fell in love with playing the piano. Group lessons at the piano store gave way to years of private instruction. I learned the language of classical music, its notes laid out on the page like an alien code.  I loved the feeling of the music flowing through my fingers, the lyrical phrases of Chopin and Beethoven drifting into my wild places. The notes ran right through me, changing me at depth.

After high school, I entered the Conservatory of Music at the University of the Pacific to pursue my love of music. It took me less than a semester to learn that I was not made for the classical music world, and I eventually switched majors. But my love for music never died. I lost access to the pianos on campus after leaving the school’s music program, and it would be almost a decade until I could play one consistently again. A family member was getting rid of a beautiful black Grotrian upright, and I jumped at the opportunity. One team of piano movers and a few hundred bucks later, the piano was mine. It sat in our living room, where I began to reacquaint myself with the pieces that I’d missed most. But something was different this time: my hands ached when I played. Strange. When a person’s hands ache in their twenties, they tend not to worry about it too much. Youth is invincible.

I conceived my first child when I was twenty eight, and I played my loveliest songs for her. She’d sway within my womb as I played, her tiny body making quiet rhythmic motions in my belly. As my pregnancy progressed, my joints began to ache in earnest. My hands and wrists developed carpal tunnel, sending sharp shooting pains up into my arms. I stopped playing, which broke my heart a little. When my baby girl was born, my hands were too busy with her to worry much about making music. She was the new harmony in my heart, and I absorbed her goodness.

Two years after her birth, I became pregnant with my son. He made himself known from the very beginning: he moved constantly, all elbows and knees and sharp angles. I played for him, too; it was the only time he ever quieted. My hands ached this time around as well, and I eventually had to stop playing again. This baby was born with a roar, and my hands were suddenly very full. My children made the sweetest music I’d ever heard, with their coos and giggles and sweet first words, their first days at preschool and their chubby-handed drawings. It would be years until I thought of the piano again.

I finally sat down at the piano bench again last fall. I’d struggled with pain in my hands consistently since my first pregnancy, and now I was in my late thirties. Determined not to allow my pain to rule me, I set out to reacquaint myself with my old ivory friend once again. I picked up an old Chopin piece, one of my favorites: his Waltz No. 10 in B minor, Opus 69, No. 2. I remembered it by heart still, its notes etched permanently into my brain. As I expected, it made my hands ache to play; but I wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t. I’d missed it too much, and I was determined to ignore the searing heat in my digits. I brought the piece up to working speed, imperfect and a little slow, but it was there. I used an old trick that I’d learned while prepping pieces for recitals, recording myself practicing in order to improve the segments that needed work. I fully intended to keep these recordings private, but now I feel compelled to share them. 

When I listen to the recordings now, I can hear the imperfections and deficiencies. Having once played at a more proficient level, I struggle to hear anything but the faults. But I do hear something else, too. I hear the joy I felt at being able to play again. My heart filled with gladness as the notes began to flow through my fingers once more. And I was happy.

A few months after I started, I was forced to stop. My hands could barely move, aching for hours after each practice session. I could no longer ignore the pain. I have a wonderful chiropractor who helped keep my hands in working order, but it wasn’t enough. I had too many things to do with my hands to justify their use on something as frivolous as playing the piano. I recorded myself one last time, playing gingerly and sorrowfully. I knew it would be the last.

I’ve had to give up other joys as well. I taught myself to knit in January of 2014. What began as a hobby quickly grew in shape and size, and a couple of years later I started designing knitting patterns for sale. I loved it. The marriage of mathematics and craft drove me forward in my newfound obsession. To call it a career would be generous; knitting pattern sales are no goldmine. But I’d found a new love, another way to make something beautiful with my hands, and it filled the space between homeschool lessons and trips to the park. I knit one thing after another, feverishly casting new projects onto my needles as fast as I could finish the old ones. I set a goal for myself to sell a pattern to my favorite American yarn company, the well-respected Brooklyn Tweed. I successfully pitched them an idea for an Aran-inspired cabled wrap design, originally named Brannock. It was the fourth pattern I’d ever designed. Brannock was renamed Aquinnah, and it was a hit: they chose my design to grace the cover of their Wool People 10 collection. From there, I began designing in earnest. Placemats made with organic Belgian linen, cozy hats knit up with American wool, felted bowls crafted from Canadian alpaca; I couldn’t write the patterns fast enough. My fan base began to grow, and I started to develop a small but loyal following. I sold another pattern to Brooklyn Tweed, a marled sweater with set-in sleeves and contrast trim. I was elated.

But eventually this, too, was lost. The ache in my hands grew until I had to set my needles down. I no longer design knitting patterns, and sometimes I can barely knit at all. It’s a hobby, after all, and I can live without it. But I don’t like to. I still knit a little here and there as my hands allow, but it isn’t the same. My days of designing patterns are over, and I’ll never stop feeling sad about it. I made some beautiful things with my hands, and I’m grateful I was able to make anything at all. But it’s a real shame to have lost my craft.

These days I’m saving my hands for my writing. There’s only so much one woman can give up, after all. And if my hands were to finally give up the ghost, I’d speak my words instead. I have too much beauty in my heart to contain it all. I have to let it out, to speak my truth into existence. Telling my stories is a joy I can never lose, and I’m going to keep telling them for as long as I live. I’ve finally found a love that not even pain can steal away.

As of this moment, I have no idea what's been causing the pain in my hands. Neither does my doctor, who's run a handful of tests and hasn't found an answer quite yet; so she's ordered some more. There are some potential culprits whose names terrify me, but until I have a diagnosis, I'm going to pretend that everything is alright. And who knows, it might be. Time will tell; and until then, I'll tell my tales.

My Teeth

I was born with normal teeth, I guess. I didn't have any at first, but they came in as normally as they ever do. I didn't suck my thumb, though I was given a bottle for a while. That might mean something, or it might mean nothing at all.

I had braces as a kid, though I'd felt perfectly fine about my teeth before I got them. Apparently I had an overbite, and the adults involved got together and decided that that was a problem. I wore them for two and a half years, which means I did a lot of color-coordinating with those little elastics. If smaller rubber bands exist in the world, they are meant for the hands of gnomes and fairies. I snapped myself in the face trying to put those things on more times than seems possible.

Once my braces had finally been removed, I dutifully wore my retainer for a few years, until my wisdom teeth started to grow in. That's one thing I did have going for me: my wisdom teeth came in straight, just like my orthodontist had said they would. The trouble was that I couldn't wear my retainer after that, because it had been made to wrap around my back teeth, and now there were entirely new teeth to consider. My requests to have a new retainer made went unheeded by my parents, though, which in retrospect seems like a silly choice to have made. They were the ones who'd paid for my smile; you'd think they'd have protected their investment a little better. But they didn't, and my teeth started crowding into one another soon after I discarded my old, useless retainer.

My dad lost his job a couple of years before I left for college, and our family's finances were unstable for a while. Orthodontistry was definitely out of the question. I'm sure I must have gone to the dentist while I was still living at home, though I don't remember it. Once I was in college, I embraced the broke student lifestyle. I didn't go to the dentist until sophomore year, when I noticed that my teeth had become unmanageably sensitive. If I was drinking something cold (or even smiling in a cold wind), several of my teeth would hurt, sending sharp nerve pains deep into my jaw. I became convinced that they all had cavities, and that I was going to die. I went with my college roommate to her family dentist in a nearby town, and it turned out that my teeth were just overly sensitive. The enamel was wearing thin, he said. He recommended using toothpaste for sensitive teeth, and that was that.

I married Ted one month after graduating college, and with that, I was off my parents' health coverage. Though I had jobs here and there, I never found anything that provided a health care plan. I'd graduated with a BFA in graphic design, but every job opening I found required more experience than I had. I couldn't find any unpaid internships, either, so gaining the relevant experience proved to be impossible. We were living near San Francisco during the early 2000's, and the Bay Area was infested with fledgling graphic designers all competing for the same handful of entry-level positions. After a while I gave up and tried my hand at massage therapy, which I adored and wish I hadn't had to quit. (I developed joint problems in my wrists that made it impossible to work.) But even when I could manage the work, those jobs definitely weren't paying for insurance, and so I just hoped and prayed I didn't get sick.

For Ted's part, he was busy starting up his first business. Start-ups don't pay benefits, and we lived the start-up lifestyle for several years. It was nerve-wracking to lack health coverage for so long, and it was miraculous that something didn't happen to either one of us. Now that we're past those years, we consider the stress involved as just one of the many risks we took to get the business off the ground; but at the time, we felt incredibly vulnerable. A car crash or a major illness could have ruined us financially. In our late twenties we finally decided to stretch in order to afford a plan through Kaiser, because we wanted to start a family. When I got pregnant, we were thankfully covered. But since I can't do anything the easy way, I decided to have home births, and so we ended up paying out-of-pocket for the midwives anyhow. Still, having health insurance was important for well-child checkups, and it gave us peace of mind that our family would be covered in case of an emergency.

In the years after we had our babies, I found it nearly impossible to go to the dentist (or any other doctor, for that matter). I took the kids to all their appointments, but I neglected to take myself. Part of it was typical putting-everyone-else-first mom-style, but part of it was our particular family situation. Ted has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type III, which is a degenerative neuromuscular disease that causes muscles to waste away over time. It steals its sufferers' abilities slowly, like the world's slowest and cruelest thief. When I first met Ted, he could do so much; we traveled to the UK together a couple of years into our relationship, using public transportation and walking for several miles each day. But by the time we had our first baby, under a decade later, he'd slowed down and was unable to do a lot of the things that most parents do. He couldn't safely hold our kids without being seated in a chair, for fear of falling while he was holding them. He couldn't pick them up from their cribs, or place them on their changing tables, or hold their hands while they learned to walk. It was such a loss for him to be unable to experience those things, and I worked extra hard to make sure he felt as little of that sting as possible. Since we didn't have any child care help, that meant I was on duty 100% of the time in all situations. My mom does live nearby and she helped us as much as she could, but I still found it an overwhelming job. Things like going to the dentist were very easy to erase from my to-do list.

Sure, I probably could have fit more trips to the dentist in there. I did manage to go a couple of times once I became a mother, though for some reason we always seemed to find the weirdest dentists in town. The first was a German woman who believed in natural dentistry, though it seemed to me that the only thing she practiced was torture. I went to her when our first child was a baby, and once was plenty. I went to a different dentist after our second child was born, but he was his own weirdo. He seemed like a normal guy, an older white gentleman whose bright Vietnamese wife managed the front desk of his practice. They'd met during the Vietnam War and had come back to America to build a life together. Their office was in a house in Healdsburg, up a charming set of steps into a building with old single-pane windows and hardwood floors. But their seemingly quaint set-up wasn't enough to obscure the couple's constant quarreling. They would fight during appointments, exchanging tense words while I sat silent in the dentist's chair. I had a small cavity filled there, my first ever; it was pretty painless, other than having to listen to their bickering. I tried to book an appointment a year later, but they were gone. They'd vanished one day, and no one seemed to know where they had vanished to, though I heard somewhere that they'd gone back to Vietnam to be near her family. It was a strangely fitting end to that particular chapter in my dental history.

After that, I just gave up on going to the dentist. I'd decided to take on homeschooling our two kids, which was great for them for a while. But it wasn't great for me; my health wasn't a priority because I was so busy taking care of everyone else's needs. I made the choice to homeschool, so it's not like I had been forced to do it. And it really was an excellent thing to do; I'm sad that it only lasted a little over three years, because my kids and I shared some amazing experiences while we were home together. But homeschooling took more than I was able to give, despite my best efforts. I was always depleted, exhausted beyond reason. I was everything to everybody, except to myself. I never wanted to be Supermom, but I ended up filling that role by necessity. And that shit is tiring.

I started having health problems at 34, and each year brought with it a new health concern. Two surgeries, a benign tumor, and several hospital visits later, I decided that I wasn't going down like that. I started getting my life back together, slowly changing my diet over time. I'd fed my kids better than I'd fed myself, prioritizing them and their development; it felt good to finally feed myself better, too. I started practicing yoga again, and I began losing the baby weight I'd been carrying around for so long. When I started walking a few miles a day, I noticed the biggest change in my body. I lost more weight, became more fit, and started feeling like a real human being again.

Feeling better about myself prompted me to take even better care of myself, and so I booked an appointment at Ted's dentist. He'd been bugging me to go to him for a few years, and I finally gave in. Of course, I should have gone to see him earlier. I had seven cavities, two of which were on my wisdom teeth, and the rest were on the cheek-sides of my molars. The dentist also found that the roots of my teeth, my molars in particular, had signs of damage. They had demineralized enough to be a concern. The extreme sensitivity of my teeth was also problematic; in addition to causing me pain, they were indicative of a monster nighttime teeth clenching habit. Since my teeth have been sensitive since college, it sounds like I've been clenching at night since then, which has led to a host of dental problems. The stress of being a homeschool mom certainly couldn't have helped.

The dentist recommended that I have my wisdom teeth removed, rather than fill the cavities on those teeth, and the rest would be addressed with fillings over time. He said that I could also opt to have the cavities on my wisdom teeth filled rather than simply removing the teeth, but he didn't see the point. I was referred to an oral surgeon as well as an orthodontist; I have a significant and unattractive gap where my upper and lower front teeth are supposed to touch when my mouth is closed. That's called a tongue thrust, and I have a pretty good one. Dental surgery was mentioned during that appointment, and it wasn't the last time I heard it spoken as a possibility. The dentist took a thorough series of photos of my teeth, and sent me on my way with referrals in hand.

First I called the oral surgeon and scheduled a consult, during which I had my entire head x-rayed and I watched a video about all the horrible things that could potentially go wrong after my wisdom teeth had been removed. I have back and joint problems that cause pain when I'm in the dentist's chair, as well as "bulbous tooth roots" which would make it difficult and painful to remove the teeth; and so the surgeon decided it would be best for me to split up the extractions into two separate surgeries. I scheduled the first, and went on my way.

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I also had a consult with the orthodontist, who performed yet another x-ray of my entire head. She said that my teeth were going to be challenging, and that achieving perfection wasn't in the cards for me. I didn't care, I just really wanted to be able to eat sandwiches normally again. It's tough to bite through anything when your teeth have a giant hole in the front where they're supposed to meet. I was also tired of speaking with whistling teeth, like the gopher in Winnie the Pooh. Any improvement would be most welcome. The orthodontist also mentioned dental surgery as a possibility, mirroring the dentist's words, and she raised concern that my already-receding gums wouldn't be able to handle the use of Invisalign, which was what she thought would be best to address the tongue thrust issue. So, we'd have to monitor the situation, and the whole thing might have to be called off at some point if my gums didn't agree with the braces. It wasn't heartening news, though everyone involved was determined to try their best.

Something about this whole situation seemed off, though I couldn't put my finger on it. I'd wanted my wisdom teeth to be removed for years, since I'd always associated my teeth becoming crooked with the eruption of my wisdom teeth. I'd forgotten about the back wires of the retainer until I gave it some thought, and then it all made sense. Braces had straightened my teeth in my childhood, but they hadn't addressed the underlying problems in the structure of my jaw. So why would braces be the answer now, especially if they could further damage my gums?

In addition, I found a study that potentially explained the damage to the roots of my teeth. Known as "root resorption," the act of moving teeth with braces causes damage to the roots in a significantly high number of orthodontic cases (one website says 100% of cases, but I can't find the article with that number; I have found studies that say up to 90% of all orthodontic cases cause root resorption in patients [as well as other problems], which is still plenty high). I was sure that my nighttime habit of teeth clenching hadn't helped things (and everyone I've seen has agreed that my clenching is a major problem); but I was also sure that the painful two and a half years I spent in braces did a number on my teeth, too. I wasn't about to sign up for more braces until I had more answers.

I decided to do some research before I had any teeth yanked. I circuitously found my way to an orofascial myofunctional therapist named Carly whose office is about an hour from our house. This is a type of exercise-based physical therapy that rewires the way you swallow, speak, and where your tongue rests in your mouth. Apparently I'm a classic case: my tongue has a slight tongue-tie which makes it weaker than it should be, so it thrusts forward when I swallow (rather than in the desired upwards motion). Over time, this thrusting motion has created the gap in my front teeth that I find so embarrassing. It's also caused my jaw to narrow and my facial muscles to weaken and compensate, which has affected my smile and other expressions. As my jaw narrowed over the years due to forces exerted on them by compensating muscle patterns, my teeth began to crowd in my jaw. My palate became malformed, which then affected my airway and the way that I breathe. My tongue became accustomed to moving in an unnatural way, which caused more damage to my palate over time. It became weak and underused, filling my mouth beyond its capacity. The resulting speech problems were a constant source of embarrassment for me.

During my first appointment with Carly, she helped me understand how my breathing patterns were increasing my anxiety, which then in turn affected my breathing patterns in a vicious cycle. Stress affects the way we breathe, and I'd been breathing shallowly into my chest like a scared animal. This type of breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, our natural "fight or flight" defense. This is helpful if you're fleeing a saber-toothed tiger, but not so helpful if you're just trying to live a modern, saber-toothed-tigerless life. I was stuck in an endless feedback loop of fear, unintentionally panicking all day long. Changing the way I breathed would change the way I felt. Carly also helped me to understand that unless I adjusted the neuropathways that controlled the way I swallow, braces would always just be a temporary fix. The orthodontist had said as much: I'd need a retainer for the rest of my life unless I wanted my teeth to become crooked again. I was willing to try this exercise-based approach in order to avoid that fate. My tongue was incredibly weak, and I'd have to work hard at building its strength and relearning how to do just about everything it was meant to do. Over time, the new patterns and pressures created by changing my tongue's movements would reshape my mouth and jaw back to something like what they should have been all along. I won't be able to achieve as much change as I would if I'd started this therapy as a kid, but even a little is something worth striving for.

It was during this consult that Carly mentioned that she strongly recommended I cancel the wisdom tooth extraction surgery. I was free to do what I felt I needed to do, especially since my wisdom teeth have cavities; but her recommendation was to have them filled and keep them around. They're straight and are very well-embedded at this point, and she had concerns that their removal would weaken my jaw further. I decided to take her advice: I could always have them pulled later if necessary, but I couldn't have them put back in. I made the choice to proceed with the orofascial myofunctional therapy, and I cancelled my surgery. If you ever have the chance to responsibly cancel a painful oral surgery, I highly recommend it. It's very uplifting for the spirits.

I still have to get my cavities filled, which I'll be calling to schedule this week. No point in wasting time now. I've been eating a lot of mineral-rich foods, in compliance with the diet recommended in Ramiel Nagel's Cure Tooth Decay, because why not go for broke and throw everything I've got at this? Even if it's bullshit, nobody ever suffered from an abundance of green leafy vegetables in their diet. My dentist had asked if I'd been eating a diet that was heavy in grains and nuts, which I absolutely had been. A little research (and a dear friend's recommendation) led me to Nagel's book, and it made a lot of sense to me. So now I'm drinking homemade bone broth daily, and I'm currently trying to figure out how to work liver and bone marrow into my diet. Eating traditional foods isn't for the weak.

I hope it works. I'd really love to heal my mouth using nutrient-dense foods and therapeutic exercises, with the help of some modern dentistry along the way. I almost certainly won't be able to avoid wearing braces again, but I can reduce the amount of time I'll have to wear the Invisalign, which will reduce the chances of longterm damage to my gums. And who doesn't want to breathe better? The risk that I may have to have my wisdom teeth eventually pulled anyway seems like a very small risk in comparison to what I could have lost if I'd had them extracted unnecessarily. This route will take more time, but my teeth have been fucked for years and years. What's a little longer?

I'm a strong believer in the body's natural healing abilities, and I'm excited to give my body a chance to heal as much as it can in every way I know how. I'm no stranger to hard work; here's giving it the old college try.