by Jan Baughman
(Swans - April 7, 2008) I suppose my story is no different than that of any other kid who hated going to the dentist because of the pain and prodding of the needle jabbed deep into the gums in order to prevent pain; the screeching sound and sickening smell of cavities being pulverized by the drill, the vacuum tube jammed under the tongue to suck the mouth dry. I had about six cavities filled as a child, and that was the easy part.
At the age of twelve, I was informed that I would be getting braces to straighten my overcrowded teeth. First, though, four molars had to be excised to make room. Once healed, next came the braces, which back then consisted of metal bands that had to be pounded onto each and every tooth with a mallet, and a wire that was wrapped around the protrusions on the front of each band. The protrusions ate the insides of my mouth raw unless I covered them with wax, and every three months or so I returned to the orthodontist to have the wire adjusted, which would result in days of aching, throbbing pain as my teeth repositioned themselves according to the plan. I had miniature rubber bands to attach from top to bottom, front to back, which could shoot off into my mouth or across a room if I moved the wrong way. Then there was the coup de grâce -- The Headgear. The headgear consisted of a thick metal wire that would be inserted into corresponding tubes on the bands of one left and one right tooth (canine or premolar -- I can't recall), attached to tanish-pink straps that fit across the top and back of the head, to provide some extra oomph in pulling the teeth toward the back of the jaw. The theory was that if I wore the headgear every night, I would only have my braces for two and a half years, as opposed to three.
At this point, I need to backtrack to say that I was the first kid in my entire elementary school to get braces -- something that's now a right of passage but back then was a metallic scarlet letter. I was twelve and awkward; the second-tallest in my class (only Mark Caskey was taller); red-headed, freckle-faced, and pale as a ghost in a Southern California society that valued the blond with the deepest tan; uncomfortable in my own skin and yet completely unable to blend into the crowd... The braces were a man-made horror that added insult to my genetic injury.
Getting back to the headgear -- though I could deal with looking like a freak in the privacy of my own bedroom, I would not be caught dead in the contraption by anyone outside my family. On top of it, the headgear made sleep a drooling, painful experience that I tried to avoid whenever possible. Thus, when I would retire without my medieval rack in place, my mother would threaten to make me wear it to school, adding that she would come to the campus and spy on me to make sure I kept it on. Puberty, shall we say, was not the best of times...
Two and a half years later, in spite of sneaking out of the contraption whenever possible (and having somehow avoided the ultimate humiliation), the wires were cut and the bands yanked off my teeth. I'll never forget the euphoric feeling of that smooth porcelain next to my lips and cheeks! But of course, it didn't end there. There was another couple of years of wearing retainers -- less invasive, removable devices for the top and bottom teeth to stabilize them in their new position. Finally, after that stage when my teeth had settled in, it was time to extract my four wisdom teeth, such that they could not decide to sprout one day and therefore crowd my teeth again. After that, I'd had enough.
In the spirit of our Western, for-profit medical system, my last dentist kicked me out of his practice for not returning every six months, and as my teeth and gums suffer from the lack of professional attention the pain and sensitivity increases, thereby exacerbating my fear of going to the dentist, knowing they will stick probes in those sensitive areas and cause me more pain. I have two fractured teeth that need replacement fillings and crowns; one tooth whose filling is working its way out and those childhood fillings that deserve replacement before they do the same; and worst of all, I need tooth scaling and root planing -- the very thought of which makes my hair stand up, like the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard except with raw nerves exposed.
My name is Jan Baughman, and I haven't been to a dentist since 1992. Perhaps what I really need is a few years on a psychiatrist's couch to reconcile my childhood and once again return to the dentist's chair; otherwise, just knock me out, do what needs to be done, and wake me up when it's all over.