The Pain of Others

Anthony Bourdain has committed suicide.  I don’t know when or how.  I do not need the details.  The news is enough.  He follows so many others.  I can’t think of anyone who would have seen this coming.  But we didn’t know him. We knew only his persona.  We knew only the personality he created for television and that wasn’t likely a good reflection on the real man.  Who was he when he was home alone with his thoughts?  We can’t know that.

We can’t know the pain of others. That is the statement we hear most often in these situations.  Some of us do know.  Rarely can we even share our emotional pain with others in words they can comprehend.  I know I can’t put it into words and I actually enjoy putting things into words.  But to put into words things that are bothering me or setting me off can feel embarrassing because of the emotions that escape along with the words.  I don’t like people to see that emotion because I don’t want it to be interpreted as weakness.

I allowed what I will call the “concept” of suicide into my brain when I was in my late teens.  I was experiencing a roller coaster of emotions that I now know was far more attributable to hormones and diet (gluten and processed sugar) than any insurance coded mental illness.

After several years of trudging back and forth from class and work to a community mental health center, I remember asking a therapist how other people were able to claim disability while I continued to acquire a degree and work full time through my constant cloud of depression and pain.  She said I was “too high-functioning” to be considered disabled.  I was better off without the label, but I lived a lot of years with the cloud and pain.  I glad at this time in my life that I never accepted that label or any of the others from the psychiatric community.  I wasn’t disabled by this problem for which I had sought treatment for decades.  This was not me.

I kept moving forward, the pain beside me, a constant companion.  Once in a while it would sleep in and I would have the unique wonder of a day without it.  Then we would meet up again and I would be reminded.

Most people would say they didn’t know that I battled with this for over twenty-five years.  It was not who I was.  I was creative and smart and thoughtful and curious.  I was a reader and a writer and an artist.  I was getting things done and making more lists.  I was high-functioning.  I wasn’t just depressed and emotional and sad and in pain.  It was there, but it wasn’t who I was.  If you have your own companion, you know what that feels like for you.  It is different for everyone.

The problem is that once that concept of suicide was allowed into my brain it never goes away.  It’s like that idea that once you are an alcoholic, always you are an alcoholic.  I am always going to be suicidal…because I once was.  It was once an option, it will always show up in the options list when I run down the numbers and see what might be.   It just doesn’t get chosen.  (I will admit, it is a little haunting.)

I saw a lot of different therapists and some psychiatrists.  I have had so many different prescriptions over the years that I can’t even tell you all of their names.  Currently I have no therapist and take no prescriptions to support that old companion.  Here is the advice I would offer to someone with a pain companion.  If you don’t seem to be making progress towards a prescription-free, mostly positive existence without the cloud of pain/frustration/depression, perhaps your therapist or the chosen therapy isn’t the right one for you.  If you have doubts, move on. Keep looking.  Keep trying new things.  Something will eventually give you the life you deserve, one with some smiles and laughs and peace in your mind.  There is something or someone out there who can help you.

 

Be kind to yourself and your friends. You don’t know what they are experiencing.

 

#depression #mentalhealth #suicideprevention

 

Moisturize More

I look at the backs of my hands and wish that I had used more moisturizer.

I noticed in my thirties that the tip of my index finger on my right hand was permanently turned in from years of school work and my own extracurricular writing in spiral notebooks full of stories.  Crayons, pencils and pens. Today the first knuckle on that same finger seems to have a knot on it even though I switched over to typing everything twenty years ago.  I could not write as fast as my mind strung together words, thoughts and images.  I could almost type that fast.

The tall finger on my right hand was stoved twice in one week in failed attempts to learn to catch a football in high school.  The swelling in the first knuckle never completely left that finger, especially after that wasp stung the very same joint on a visit to Notre Dame College in South Bend, Indiana years later. I’d driven over to visit with a man about a magazine project we were trying to get off the ground.  It was a beautiful Spring day to sit outside at the college and chat.  I hadn’t even seen the wasp.  But I felt it.  Poor finger turned to stone and would not bend.  For several weeks it appeared I was flipping people off indiscriminately.

I can still see the scar from the tiniest cut right at the base between the middle and ring fingers on my left hand.  I was putting away a bowl of tuna fish salad.  I had too many things in both my hands and was trying to hold the fridge door open with one foot when the salad bowl began to tip.  I hated to clear the table and I hated to make extra trips.  I was always carrying too many items at the same time.  I flipped my hand to catch the bowl against the door and the slight impact caused the glass to break and one piece sliced my hand.  I didn’t feel it, that is how slight it was.  Suddenly there was just blood mixed in with the mayonnaise, eggs, onions and tuna.  That certainly isn’t appetizing.  The scar is that slight too.  No one would ever notice it, except me and my memory.

There is some arthritis in both hands, I suspect.  When I clench them into fists out of frustration, I feel it, the fluid that builds up in the joint and keeps the fingers from closing into an effective fist.  Not all of them, just the two pointers.

I once had my palms read in a booth at the Renaissance Fair.  It was not what I expected sitting down at her table the wind blowing my hair that I had just had braided at a booth nearby.  The braids were too tight and starting to pull on my scalp, but I loved braids, so the headache later would be worth it.  What had I expected in a palm reading?  I was thinking there would be identification of lines and projections based on them.  That is not what this was.  She took my hands in hers and started to rock back and forth.  She looked at them and began to mutter over and over the same words.

“You never done nobody no harm.  You never done nobody no harm.”

It started to freak me out a little and I wanted my hands back.  I got them back and thanked her, getting up and moving to the other side of the fairgrounds as quickly as possible with her words echoing in my head.  They still do.  I think I feel I have done people harm, but then, my idea of harm could be a negative thought.  Perhaps she was right.

My mother’s hands were soft and caring, but misshapen from decades of hard work. She helped

when my father built our house in the fifties: a two-bedroom cape for a large family to come.  She helped

him build the garage the year I was born: 1961.  She worked inside and outside the house nearly every minute that she was awake from before the sun came up until long after it had moved beyond the horizon. She gardened vegetables that her hands cleaned and canned for our table.  Her fingers organized three meals a day, every day, then cleared and washed the pans, dishes, silverware and counter-tops. Her fingers managed all the typing work she did on a used and very heavy old Royal manual typewriter.  Her typing supplemented our family’s income especially when my father was laid off.  There was laundry, sewing, mending, painting, scrubbing floors and walls, weeding the garden, cleaning fish, peeling endless piles of potatoes. The list goes on.

 

Hers were soft from constantly moisturizing with a heavy though luscious looking hand cream called Pacquins Hand Cream.  “For Dream Hands, Cream Your Hands” read the ad from a late 1940’s magazine I saw on eBay.  It sounds a bit suggestive today, as all old advertisements have a way of sounding.

My mother was very specific in her preference for the original one in the jar with the purple lid– not the Pacquins Plus one or the fancy one with Aloe (both of those had “funny” textures to her).  They just didn’t work the same. She was constantly washing her hands, so the heavier creamy lotion was essential.  It became hard to find as the beauty industry exploded in the eighties and nineties and it wasn’t considered hip enough for the shelf space at local drug stores.  Then it disappeared altogether.  The only product I ever found that was comparable was the Lubriderm with the pink cap.  Well, it was pink at the time, they may have changed it.

My hands do not look like hers, like my mother’s.  I took in typing to make money during college.  I sewed until I realized I would never be as good as she was. I have not done nearly as much work as she had to do to raise a family, keep a house. I don’t do either.  I worked in offices.  I have always lived alone and was never quite as concerned with clean walls and food stores for future as perhaps I should have been.

I look at the backs of my hands and wish I had used more moisturizer.  The cuticles around my nails are always worried into sore spots and callous.  I picked at them with other fingers during classes and presentations and meetings and parties.  I picked and drove hard nails into them to remind myself where I was and that there were specific ways to behave and think. I rubbed them to calm their bloodied tips as assurance that whatever event would soon be over. I hid them embarrassed in my pockets or wrapped around each other so that no one would see.

I have been obsessed with hands for some time now. I have a file on my computer with images of other people’s hands.  I like to capture their hands at work. Hands are creators, engineers, artists, musicians. They are comforting and connecting and they can be angry and defensive.

My work was fear and discomfort and anxiety.  It has shaped my hands the way housework shaped my mother’s hands.

They could all use some Pacquins.

Finding My Place Volunteering

“You forgot to peel it!”  Mildred (not her real name) said with some disgust, grabbing the cucumber out of my hand and roughly peeling it naked, peels flying into the nearby trash can and sticking to the sides of the liner in an interesting pop-art kind of way.

“Please,” I thought to myself, sighing, “don’t punish the cucumber for my mistakes.”

“And you’re slicing it too thick.  We have a budget here, you know.”

That was the problem. I didn’t know.  She had told me once how she wanted it done four weeks earlier and since then I’d been given other tasks.  I was a volunteer, in her kitchen one day a week.  I had not been going there long enough to get a feel for the routine, mostly because it changed each week.

Since moving to Massachusetts from Ohio over fifteen years ago, I have been looking for the right place for me to volunteer.  Growing up my mother was the ideal role model of a volunteer.  She was on the board of the local Friends of the Library Group that was instrumental in raising funds that took our community from first a one room to a two-room building and then on to a fancy new building.  I have a news clipping of her with a hard hat and shovel as they broke ground.  She registered voters, campaigned for politicians, made treats as a room mother when we were in elementary school, took food to sick friends.  The list goes on.  If someone was in need, she was there.

I enjoyed doing volunteer work myself at that same library, then tutoring other students in school.  In college I volunteered at the local children’s services board and eventually became a Guardian ad Litem appearing on behalf of children at Juvenile Court in custody hearings.  Years later, I became a Coordinator of Volunteers at a museum.  That was a paying job, not volunteer.  It was one of my many jobs that I truly enjoyed.  It encompassed my skills of organizing events, writing training materials, teaching and recognizing others for their good works.  You keep people happy and they keep coming back and doing more good work.  That is what you do to as a manager of volunteers – you recruit, recognize and retain.  It doesn’t hurt to provide them with refreshments either.  People, like pets, respond well to food rewards.

Early on I discovered that everywhere I had volunteered, the person coordinating the activity had a clear plan, gave me thorough instructions and was happy to have help.  They set me up for success and in doing so, set themselves up for success with a smooth-running event or project from which all of their clients or participants benefited.  Since moving here, not one single organization for which I have volunteered has set me or themselves up for success.   I arrived to stamp postcards for an art group – there were no stamps.  On another occasion for the same group, I arrived to do the postcards a second year and they had already been done.  I had driven an hour to get there to find the task already completed.

“Oh, we want you to help with this, instead,” they said referring to the writing and distribution of a press release.   I didn’t want to help with the new task, but what recourse did I have at that point?  If a volunteer selects a specific task, that is the task they expect to be doing and that is the task that they should be doing.  If they were given a choice of tasks and made a specific selection, they did so for a reason – they felt it in their area of skill, expertise or comfort zone at that moment in time.  To change it up is to risk them not accepting the call to volunteer again.

I wanted to help people learn to read and joined the literacy group only to discover that reading wasn’t part of the literacy scope in Massachusetts – they only taught ESL to immigrants new to the states.  I was okay with this as long as the person to whom I was assigned was here legally.  “Of course,” I was assured, all of their clients were vetted and legally in the country.  A year later, the lady with whom I had met every Saturday for several hours and helped through many tricky questions well outside the realm of literacy, admitted that she was in fact, not legally in the country.  Great, now I am accessory to a crime.

Other places had no handbook, no orientation, no training, or were like trying to join an exclusive club that did not want any new members.  It got to the point I stopped using the volunteer site to find opportunities and started to call charities that I simply felt a connection to and wanted to support.

“Hi, I was wondering if you needed any volunteers in your office to do mailings, design work or other admin duties?” I had asked the local Autism foundation. While it seemed an innocent enough question, I could hear the gears turning through the phone wires.  There was this short deafening silence as she thought about volunteers potentially making her paying job obsolete by doing it for free.  “No,” she said suddenly, “We don’t have any need for that.”    Click.  I would have to work on my opening.

I had fallen into a habit of donating money instead of volunteering. Then I saw a movie about a couple who were volunteering in a soup kitchen for the homeless and hungry.  In a very telling scene, a homeless man said to the wealthy volunteer that he knew it would have been the man’s preference to have just written a check.  That he “showed up” made all the difference.  It spurred me onto finding somewhere I could ‘show up’, give time, work in service to others in person.

It sounds more noble than it appears when you are peeling cucumbers.  The cucumber was just the tip of the problem.  Nothing I did that day in the kitchen at the senior center was right.

“Get the drinks ready,” she said, “We need to make more lemonade so fill that pitcher with water.”

I filled the pitcher, lemonade was made and I put the drinks out.

“No, it’s too early,”  she corrected, pointing, “they go over here first.”  I was willing to overlook the inefficiency of this arrangement of moving pitchers from the cold fridge to the warm serving table too early.  After all, it was her kitchen.  Her system – whatever that appeared to be on the day.

“Sorry,” I said for the first of what would be the umpteenth time that day, putting all the pitchers of ice tea and lemonade into the tray and adding ice around them in a futile attempt to keep them chill.  Later someone else would put them out in the cafeteria where diners could access them.

In the first twenty minutes I was there, that fourth week, I heard, “you’re doing it wrong,” at least six times.   I am not a person who hears those words often, but a commercial kitchen was not even close to the type of work I had done in offices setting up efficient systems and working on computers for thirty years.

In college, I did work-study with preschoolers at a rather progressive, for its time (the eighties), on-site daycare center.  There was a rule that we were to avoid the use of the words no, not, don’t, can’t – anything with a negative in it or a negative feel to it.  This was a challenge at first and then it became fun.  Instead of saying, “Stop throwing that water all over the floor,” to a child at the water table, I might say, “You will have more water to play with if we can keep it in the table.”  Or “Billy, I think Sara would feel better if you hugged her instead of biting her.”  We would rephrase everything to a positive, redirect instead of admonish.   We were to “catch a child being good” every chance we could.  It is an important skill, to look for things to compliment rather than correct or belittle in those around us.

Working with preschoolers gave me an excellent foundation for later work supporting adult executives and training sales people on software programs where I would again have to break subjects down to the simplest steps and foresee potential problems.  Success comes when you set people up to succeed, not fail.  Success comes from proper planning, thoughtful training and paying attention to how each individual with whom you are working learns.  If you are training three people, odds are they all learn in different ways at different speeds and likely one will be trying to answer emails and text while another will still be eating breakfast and the third will just be bored no matter how interesting you make the material.  Regardless, it was my job to know this and tailor the training so that it worked for all three.  I wanted to reach them all.  I want them all to succeed or I had failed.  And now, somehow, I was failing at cucumbers.

Mildred in the kitchen is an energizer bunny.  She’s at the grill, then the sink, then greeting an old friend, then at the sandwich station, then receiving the Monday order, then letting me know I’ve done something wrong again.  Admirably, she knows this kitchen through and through.  I do not. Considering she is of an advanced age and experience, I yield to her somewhat sketchy instruction and corrections which are, starting this fourth week, to wear me down.  I was the one, after all, who did not want to volunteer in the office.  I requested the kitchen.  I wanted to show up.  I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted to wash dishes. In the past the kitchen has always been a place of camaraderie for me whether it was at home, at the day care where I had worked or in the busy coffee bar at the Borders where I had worked.  (I said I have had many jobs, didn’t I?)  I had loved scraping partially eaten scones off plates and loading up the giant noisy monster of a dishwasher.  We were doing it together.

I entered her kitchen admitting that I did not have a lot of experience, but that I had some and was a good worker.  I forgot to add, I am a good worker when given proper instruction. I thought that went without saying.

I learned the first week that Mildred moved fast, gave half instruction and I needed to keep up.  I tried to fill in the blanks.  She told  me I was wrong and moved faster.  Hmmm.

I learned the second week that when instructed to make a sandwich for an order, I was to make it Mildred’s way without ever having been shown what that was.  This was true of soup and salad as well. Hmmm.

I learned the third week that even at my advancing age, I could be thrown off balance by this and feel as insecure as I did at new jobs just after college in my inexperienced twenties. Hmmm.

Wait a second here.  I am a volunteer.  I am not even getting paid to be told quietly in my ear so that no one would hear, “A little common sense is what you need.”   Hmmm.

I keep going back, because my go-to is to blame myself.  If I were better, smarter, and apparently had more common sense, she wouldn’t have to correct me so much. Right? But how do I catch on when there is no training, no demonstration of the “right way”?  Suddenly this reminded me of old bosses, two in particular, both women.  I was there to support them and both set me up to fail regularly so that they could point it out.  This wasn’t about me.  This was about them.  I am better, smarter and have plenty of common sense.   I have enough common sense to see that my success at volunteering will not likely be at this location.

Okay…back to the volunteer opportunities website.

Unbreakable

I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t at all that I am missing memories.  It is just that everyday growing up was much the same as every other day.  Every month the same as every other month.  Every year…you get where I am going with this.

For example, every meal we ate as a family ended with the table being cleared, plates scraped into a bowl for the dog, whatever dog was present at the time – my father gave them all the same name – Gypsy. Hot soapy water prepared and the dishes washed by hand by my mother and dried and put away by me into the cupboards across the room.  Let’s say we ignore breakfast and count lunch and dinner – two meals a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for twenty years – That’s roughly 14,560 times we stood at that old ceramic sink and washed and dried dishes together, my mother and me. I don’t even want to figure out how many times I crossed that room to put away dishes.  It was a mundane task, performed repeatedly.  It blurs in the mind.  Laughter, tears, happiness, fear – that’s what makes one monotonous event stand out from the others in the fog of decades.  We weren’t exactly an emotional family.

I do remember the day the Corel dinner plate broke.  It was subtle, silent break lurking beneath the sudsy dishwater in the plastic dishpan in the sink.  My mother reached in and very quickly drew back her hand. Blood was already spreading from the slice through the calloused skin on her finger. It dripped back into the water coloring the soap bubbles.

“What happened?” I asked grabbing a towel to wrap her finger in.

“I don’t know.  Something bit me,” she said in disbelief.  How would a piranha have gotten into the dishwater?  I wondered but knew better than to make a joke.

I spilled the water from the dishpan slowly into the basin of the old ceramic sink. The dishes and silverware inside rose up as the tide retreated.  I thought perhaps one of the sharp knives we’d used for cutting the vegetables for dinner might have gotten her.  None appeared in the jumble. Then I saw something out of place.  Large and small white pieces of a dinner plate that had shattered at the bottom of the dishpan.

It wasn’t a deep cut.  The bleeding stopped quickly.  She supervised as I sorted out the spoons, forks, knives and other remnants of the meal we just ate from the harsh-edged pieces of the plate.  Like the forensic buffs that we were, we arranged the pieces on a towel on the counter and examined them.  It was splintered into a group of shards spiraling out from the center of the plate that used to be: Unbreakable.  That’s why we bought them, they were unbreakable.  Each broken piece tapered down to a fine point and looked worthy of a role as murder weapon in any domestic violence plot on television.

“Bandaid.”  My mother repeated.  I had been too deep in my examination of the pieces to have heard her first request.  “And Neosporin, I know,”  I responded turning for the first aid in the cupboard across the room.  Neosporin and a Bandaid were as important in our medicine cabinet as duct tape was in the tool box.

“I’ll finish the dishes,” I said.   I put everything back into the dishpan and cleared any additional broken pieces out of the basin.  Hot water was soon running and bubbling up.

“Be careful,”  she warned.

I had an odd desire to save the broken pieces.  For what?  I loved a good jigsaw puzzle.  It was kind of like that.  I was curious to see if we had all the pieces.  Curious to see if I could put it back together in a way that it wouldn’t be noticed.  It was a break in our routine.  It was broken and I always had a need to fix.  My mother swept them into a trash can as I was considering the possibilities.  There would be no fixing.

She was considering other possibilities as she shook the towel out over the trash can. “If one broke, any of them could break.”   Dinner plates, desert plates, cereal bowls, tea cups….one break and her trust was broken for the entire remainder of the set.  I nodded in agreement as I rinsed and placed each item in its usual spot in the drainer to the left of the sink.

It is the breaks I remember – the disruptions to the monotony.  Different types of glass break differently, causing different injuries.  It is the same with family.

The dish that broke that day had clean cracks that opened from a particular point of some stress.  A cut from them was a neat slice, not ragged, and would heal with little to no scar, especially if the area was cleaned and the Neosporin had been applied quickly enough.   There would be little memory of it.

Some cuts, from dull edges tear the skin more than slice it, creating a ragged edge to the wound.  First aid will do what it can.  It will heal, but it will be a lasting visual reminder.

Some glass creates small crumbs, deceivingly rounded looking but with sharp facets that can get ground into your skin.  Too small to be rinsed away or extracted.  Later they rise to the surface one by one to continually remind you of the pain that caused them initially.   Those memories are hard to escape from.

Most of the breaks in our family cut you like that, like sand when you skinned your knee but much worse.  They are small pieces burrowed deep into me, that I cannot forget because there is too much emotion attached.  I long for the ones I don’t have cluttering my mind.  There would be a peacefulness to their day to day sameness, their monotony.  There would be a lack of emotion that still connects me to the experiences but at the same time disconnects me.

 

#iremember #idontremember #unbreakable #broken

Let’s Talk Teeth

Let’s talk teeth.  They are, after all, forefront on my mind since I had Number 10 pulled and the pain began the next day and never stopped.  I’ve had teeth pulled before and the pain generally stops once the offending tooth is removed.  This tooth was not in pain to start with, so I had gone into this with an inflated sense of confidence that everything would be easy.   I’ve been to the dentist five times this past week and a half.  Once to the oral surgeon who did the ever so gentle ‘yanking out’ of the tooth and four other times to my own dentist for follow-up or what we might call “why am I still in pain appointments”.

The politically correct term for the ‘yanking out’ of the tooth is extraction.  And to be honest, the oral surgeon was a nice lady and she did get it out in one piece with minimal stress.  Making the left turn out of her parking lot onto a very busy street was actually more stressful.  Yes, I broke my long-standing practice of avoiding left turns.  Left turns, in my opinion, tend to inconvenience others which attracts attention to me that I don’t want. Left turns take extra time while I wait for my ‘window’ of opportunity and create a situation where I could be hit by cars coming from either direction rather than just the one direction, resulting in an accident which would be more inconvenience.  I don’t care for inconvenience.  So unless there is a light with a left arrow, I avoid left turns.  Try moving about the planet with that mindset.  The alternative here was a right turn taking me into downtown and no one wants to do that if they do not have to.  Or is that just me?

So there I sat edging my way out onto Broad Street, four lanes wide, with a giant gauze blob sticking out of my mouth.  You see, prior to the extraction, the oral surgeon had to remove the temporary bridge I was wearing.  I call it the “Bridge of Dreams”.  It is what I always wanted my front teeth to look like. Like everyone else, straight, orderly, no giant gaps because of one tooth that opted to be shy and grow inward. She tried hard to hide the pair of pliers she used to pull the bridge out first but I saw them as well as the other tool for the extraction itself.  After the extraction and a single, ‘it will fall out on its own’ stitch, she replaced the bridge and gave me gauze to bite down on.

“Keep your mouth shut until you get to Dr. Thomas’s office,” were my instructions after writing the check for $275.00 and handing it over to the receptionist.  The gauze would help with the clotting and keep the bridge in place until Dr. Thomas could reset the temporary bridge.

I had asked the oral surgeon’s nurse prior to the procedure, “Could I have the tooth?  I’ve never asked for one before, but this one is symbolic,” I said.

Part of me was looking forward to this. It was a big step. She smiled politely and said yes. I could almost hear her rolling her eyes.

“So you want to put it under your pillow?”  the oral surgeon asked when I repeated the request. I wasn’t taking any chances that I hadn’t been heard.

“No,” I said, starting to get annoyed by the wait and now a silly question.  I had been a half hour early, typical me; they were running a half hour late, typical them and then no one could seem to unzip the email attachment with the tooth’s x-ray attached for their reference. I almost got up out of the chair to offer my help.  My sense of calm, which I had carefully prepared over the past month, was starting to wear thin now that ‘yanking’ of the tooth was eminent.

“It’s symbolic.” I said more to myself then to her.  I was not explaining this again. I was 55 years old and this tooth had been in my way for nearly my whole life, you do the math. I was ready, let’s do it.

My oldest brother had a similar tooth, but his grew outward.  I vividly remember the day we took him to an oral surgeon when I was around five, he ten.  I remember the waiting room was busy and my mother took us out in the hall to wait.  It was gray.  Everything, the walls, the floor, the ceiling.  At least in the waiting room there had been some children’s magazines – Highlights – I loved the hidden picture puzzles.  Why did we have to be pulled away from those?  We were milling around in the hall when we heard my brother screaming.  Not a normal shriek, but a bloody murder painful scream that lives in memories for a long time.  Apparently we’d gone to wait at the exact wrong end of the hall if my mother had been trying to protect us from anything scary.

We didn’t spend any extra time at dentists after that.  When my own wonky tooth came in, growing inward instead of outward as his did, it was decided that it could be left alone.  I used to try and try to push it outward with my tongue so that it was in the right place. So that I could smile and it would look like everyone else.  But had I been asked if I wanted it removed, I would have said a very definite “NO, Thank you,” remembering that scream and the condition of my brother after his appointment.

What about braces for me later?  While I know that the real issue was money, an equally large part of the issue was fear.  Fear and money probably keep people from doing a lot of things in their lives.

Braces would have costs thousands of dollars, even then.  It was the early seventies and my father was either on strike or laid off at least once every year for a period of several months.  My mother was already making what we had go as far as possible.  Not only would braces have been a large expense, but they would have meant endless extra visits to a dentist for adjustment.  My mother did not drive and the idea that my father would set aside this time was not an idea anyone would entertain.  It would have created inconvenience.  And then there was the potential for pain.  Braces are painful.  Painful to put in, painful to wear, painful to adjust.  Wires….those could not possibly be gentle in anyone’s mouth.  To have a child in pain, would have been a constant distraction from all of my mother’s daily chores and obligations taking care of a large family.

So braces had never been an option.  I was silent as a child for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was embarrassment over that tooth. I got the message.  Keep your mouth shut.  Don’t speak unless you are spoken to.  Don’t contradict an adult even when they are wrong.  Don’t be stupid. Don’t be smart.  Don’t be a smartass.  Do not question. In teaching me to not be outspoken, I was silenced. The tooth just created a physical reason to stay that way.

We did go for regular dental check-ups and once in a while I had cavities that had to be filled.  Dear old Dr. Herrmann was our regular dentist.  I am sure he only seemed old.  The office smelled of antiseptic, but as he got close all I smelled was cigarette smoke.  Later I heard he drank a lot at the office.  I never smelled that.  Considering all the drinkers in the family, I might have found the scent of whiskey comforting.  Even so, it was always more the fear of pain, then the actual pain that was the real issue.  It still is.  Imagination mixed with a little memory are powerfully dangerous in terms of my anticipation.

So why now, why at 55?  About four years ago, around the time I was changing, I was referred by a friend to my current dentist for a broken tooth.  I had the money that I had not had in the past and wanted to take care of a few other teeth as well.  I’d lived with that wayward tooth for my whole life. It had not crossed my mind that it, too, could be taken care of.  This was around the time I had stopped eating wheat and discovered I was a different person – I had less anxiety, less depression, was less withdrawn and less introverted.  It was at the beginning of the new me so why not a new mouth?  During one visit, while Dr. Thomas was joking and putting me at ease, I noticed that he had something in his hand.  He had taken a little bit of putty they use and fashioned a tiny tooth.

“I’ve been thinking about something,” he said, “Open and I’ll show you.”  I opened.  He tucked the little tooth into the gap created by Number 10 hiding mostly behind where it should be.  Laura, the tech that supported him smiled and handed me a mirror.

“Have a look,” he said.  “What do you think?”

What could I think?  Wow!  WOW!  It fit right in, it made my front teeth look….normal for the first time in my life.

“That’s cool,” I said, “But…”  There were always ‘buts’.

“We have a plan, remember, and there are a lot of other teeth to take care of first.  It’s just something for you to think about.  First you should talk to others about options.  I would make you a bridge, but an orthodontist can tell you if braces are an option and I have someone you can speak to about implants to see if those options are something you want to pursue.  We will work on our plan and you can start doing your research.”

It was something to think about.  And it was pretty much all I could think about.  I used to get bored with work and Photoshop a tooth into that spot on my picture just to remind myself what he had shown me. I wanted that tooth.  I wanted it right away.  But we had a plan, so other work was done first.  And there was the money.  I would have the money but it needed to be spread out over the next several years.

I visited three different orthodontists about braces.  The first was a younger doctor who took one look in my mouth and at me.  I suppose I looked to him an unattractive, overweight older woman with some sort of vanity issue.

“It’s not going to make any difference in your life to have this fixed,” he informed me.   I heard the words “so why bother” after.   I cried for three days and did not see the next orthodontist for six months.

The next one ran what appeared to me clearly a “braces mill”.  It was an extremely busy office with an open floorplan exam area.  It had a trendy feel with one high-tech chair after another lined up like a hair salon with sparkling mouthed teenagers streaming in and out.  To their mind everyone should have braces and their expensive equipment and fancy cars in the parking lot supported that.

The third and final orthodontist was a very down to earth older fellow who spent a lot of time gently measuring my mouth.

“Wow, your mouth opens really wide,”  he announced putting his ruler away.

“Are you trying to tell me I have a big mouth?” I asked.

“I don’t really know you well enough to make that judgment.”

We had a nice rapport quickly.  If I wanted braces, yes, there would be discomfort, yes, it would take years, but, yes this tooth could be brought into line with the others over time.  It was the no bullshit approach to which I responded well.  If I had opted for the braces route, you know which I would have picked no doubt?

I visited one specialist about implants.  As she drove a metal pick into my mouth repeatedly making me squirm and cry out, I had images of doctors in death camps torturing prisoners.  She was very German and very cold.  Wait a sec, I’m German!

So for years, we’ve worked our plan.   A repaired root canal here, new root canal and a bridge there with time in between to heal and forget any “discomfort”.  My dentist knows how to make me comfortable.  He and his staff have taught me it is okay to be honest and to speak.  I can ask for a neck pillow.  I can request to wear the lead vest even when I am not getting x-rays (try it, it is super comforting).  And the best part.

“Here’s your puzzle for the day,”

My dentist will enter and tape a post-it to the light over my head.  I started that when I was trying to distract myself from my anxiety during one of my early visits and I noticed a company name inside that bright light over my head.  I started to list words in my head using the letters of that company’s name. Of course, I had rules. I always have rules.  No words under three letters, no proper names, etc.  I found 45 words.  It had great vowels. He caught on that I was doing something and asked.  Now, every appointment, he adds a new word on a post-it to that light so I have a new game to play.  He has tried to give me logic puzzles and number puzzles but nothing works as well as a word puzzle for me in that situation.

During this week of pain that would not stop.  I called his office.  I texted him at home.  He always says come in.  There is never any hesitation and no issue that I do not have an appointment.  First we removed the ‘it will dissolve on its own’ stitch.  It was under the bridge and perhaps rubbing it the wrong way.  It looked like a huge rope!  I was sure that was the culprit.  It wasn’t.  I went back.  They squeezed me in again.  I was concerned I was wearing out my welcome.

Dr. Thomas tried to remove the temporary bridge that had been removed several times that week.  This one time, I nearly jumped out of the chair.  Bring on the Novacain.  Dr. Thomas went to check on a patient with an appointment while the drug took affect.   Very quickly my upper lip felt as though it expanded several feet out from my face and then deflated into a cold, unfeeling, fleshy fold over my teeth.  Laura left the room for a moment and I happened to reach up and touch my nose. That was a huge mistake.

I couldn’t feel my nose.  “Oh my God,” I thought,  “I am alone here and I am going to suffocate to death!”  Some rational part of my mind that I am not generally in touch with took over, “You can breathe through your nose even without feeling your nose,” it said.  Then it repeated it over and over again.  After a number of repetitions, I stopped believing it.  Laura returned to the room just as I was about to panic out loud.

“Oh dear,” she said in a tone worthy of a nurse in a mental ward, “I left you alone too long.”  And look what I’ve gone and done. I’ve gotten myself into a state.

She made me take deep breaths and let them out slowly.  I was okay around the fourth breath, but she went on to seven.  It was exhausting. The bridge was removed and shaved down inside and replaced.  When the Novocain wore off that day, I had the strangest feeling.  I felt normal. There was no pain.  There was no discomfort.  It was as though the tooth had not even been extracted.  My tongue knew it had, because it keeps checking.  It wasn’t there.

(I know….ewww)

After all, I had it in an envelope.  My first impression of it, laying there in my hand, was that it was smaller than I’d imagined.  It had seemed so large and out of place in my mouth all those years. But it was, in reality, so small.  The tip was bent.  It probably should not have come out so easily or in one piece.  But it did, and I have it.  It is, after all, symbolic.

In a few months, the permanent bridge will be placed.  The plan will be complete.  This year is the year.