I had braces like any normal, American teen. After an especially painful three years filled with three expanders, chains, and a minor gum surgery, I told my orthodontist to take them off, because I was dismayed by the slow progress and wanted nice senior pictures. He acquiesced, and I was dazzled by my new smile, the first time in high school that I’d seen my teeth brace-free. My dazzlement was quickly dampened when I realized that my teeth didn’t touch in the front. By a lot.
BLTs from Subway, my sandwich of choice, had become a pain in the ass to eat. My misaligned teeth ripped them apart like a butter knife cutting a loaf of soft bread. My teeth were great pizza de-cheesers. One time, while eating dinner with a good friend, he told me there’s something different about the way I talk. Not quite a lisp, but like I’m trying harder to say the same sounds everyone else does. I lived like this for six years, then I went to a dentist in Rhode Island to get some cavities filled. She was the first person to tell me I needed to get braces put back on in preparation for eventual jaw surgery.
I was in total denial. Flabbergasted by her extreme suggestion, I took her warnings of tooth decay and jaw pain with an enormous grain of salt. It was upsetting to hear, but I thought she just wanted the money another round of braces would provide her.
Then my jaw started to hurt. It’s been a gradual process, but the way my jaw and teeth are aligned means my mouth is never properly closed, meaning it feels as if I’m constantly holding my jaw open. The joints ache, the pain creeping down my neck translating into constant severe muscle tension. The roundness to my teen face narrowed out, defining my cheek bones and the decided lack of a chin. That something was skeletally wrong with the way my jaw was set became more obvious.
I let how much all this bothered me build and build, until I went to an orthodontic consultation the other day, five years after seeing that dentist in Rhode Island and still thinking something as benign as Invisalign could fix it all. The orthodontist started by saying that I’m a beautiful girl and that there’s nothing wrong with the way I look, BUT. He said the moment he looked at the pictures the technician had taken of my teeth, he could tell I was a surgery referral. He explained that I not only had an open bite, but also an overbite and a cross bite. He pulled up the picture of my profile, something I normally die a little looking at, and pointed out in glaring detail the skeletal malformation of the lower half of my face. It’s strange to have someone talk about your face as if it’s a work of art, something to be critiqued and molded, scrapped and conjectured about.
I walked out of the orthodontist’s office, determined to carry out the professional persona I had cultivated while in there. I was crying before I hit my car, the loud, racking, dramatic sobs of a rom com protagonist when she gets dumped. It takes the news that I have to have my face pulled apart to get me in that many pieces. I called my very oldest friend and one of the only people I’ll cry around. Her sympathetic murmurs were comforting, but it’s a very lonely feeling to know that you have to pass through something that you alone can do, and that no one around you can help you shoulder the burden.
When I was 13, I loved watching graphic videos of surgeries. I was interested in anatomy, and wondered how they put people back together when they were broken. I could normally watch any surgery with a steely gaze, but a few turned my stomach, namely anything involving the face. One day I tuned in mid-surgery and had to waffle my fingers over my eyes. I watched as the surgeons completely disconnected the upper jaw from the rest of the patient’s face with a bone saw, then plucked the patient’s wisdom teeth out FROM ABOVE, something that still chills me to think about. They joked about how that’s not how it’s normally done, in case any viewers were scheduled for the following week. I remember thinking she must have been in some horribly disfiguring car accident that they would have to deconstruct her face so severely. It looked like it had been flipped inside out, then run through a meat grinder. Turns out, they were doing the exact surgery I would find out I needed 14 years later. I could throw up.
I have options: I could do nothing, live with this increasing pain and tension for the rest of my life and just deal with the consequences. I could get adult braces, an enormous blow to my nearing-30-year-old vanity, in an attempt to improve my bite. But the only thing that would fix it completely is surgery. That brings up questions of where and when and insurance. I leave for Brazil in four days, so none of this would proceed before that. But after that? It’s hard to plan for something this involved and long-term when my life, by choice, is so ephemeral in its certainty. I have no idea where I’ll be in a year, but it most certainly won’t be anywhere near my parents. Who will take care of me when the time eventually comes? Maybe I’ll try to snag a husband just to drive me to appointments and blend my food and pick the dried blood out of my nose. I’m worried I’ll throw up with my teeth banded shut. I’m worried the swelling will be so severe that I won’t be able to breathe. I’m worried the screws will fail and that my top jaw will come undone and fall out. This is a very unfortunate thing to happen to a hypochondriacal wuss with anxiety issues.
I’ll try my best to not ruminate on this as I embark for Brazil. I’ll enjoy my year as my jaw pain intensifies. When I look in the mirror, I’ll see a work of art that still needs a lot of work, a future surgical palate (no pun intended). I’ll cry, I’ll be at peace with it, I’ll cry some more. I’ll imagine kissing no one while in braces. I’ll wallow and be strong, hoping the cycle spends more time at the latter.