Perfection.

My emotional state has been flip-flopping between being angry and sad for the past few weeks.

I had emergency oral surgery that involved taking out 2 lower molars and an impacted wisdom tooth about a month ago, and it took almost 2 weeks before I could speak like normal. One molar was in trouble because of the impacted wisdom tooth. Another was because a 10-year old root canal had an infection (although I didn’t feel any pain) and would have to come out sooner rather than later. And those were the ones I needed to attend to then. I still have another root canal treated tooth that’s biding it’s time because another dentist didn’t realise my filling had come loose last year (he merely put more filling on top of it) – and had allowed it to decay further until there wasn’t much tooth left.

No one informed me that all of this would one day happen.

No one told me that it could have been prevented.

Don’t get me started on why I even needed the root canals in the first place – it was because a shady dentist didn’t clean out my cavity properly (and no, x-rays were not taken back then). I thought something was amiss when he kept pushing that I should have crowns done; to which another dentist said “Crowns?! I’m more concerned about saving your tooth!”

I had braces done when I was a teen. I just recently learned one of my back molars wasn’t uprighted properly by braces that was done almost 20 years ago. And that I should have worn my retainers every night FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. No one told me this. Not even my dentist.

Over the years I told the dentists that I’ve met that I sometimes grind my teeth. They waved my concerns away because it wasn’t that bad. I went to a dentist every year for annual check ups. All clear, they said. Keep the back of your mouth clean where the impacted wisdom tooth was, and it should be fine.

So I did. Or at least I tried my best. It’s hard to say.

Maybe I didn’t do enough. Maybe my occasional grinding did me in too. I even got a sonic toothbrush and a Waterpik to actively prevent cavities and to make sure my pearly whites were getting the best cleaning everyday. But even so, I couldn’t help but feel angry and disappointed at the dentists who could have done better. Who could have done their job properly. Who could have prevented things from going this far.

You might laugh at me and think I’m silly. It’s just teeth for crying out loud. I get it.

I took good care of mine. Brushing. Flossing. Rinsing. Waterpik-ing. Annual checkups. But shit still happens. Recently, I’ve been told stories of how some people hadn’t gone to the dentist for 10 years, who didn’t floss and yet still have perfect teeth. It’s luck, they said. At the time, they could have just ripped out my heart and stabbed it in front of me and it wouldn’t be as painful to hear.

Losing two of my teeth (that impacted wisdom tooth didn’t count) took an emotional toll on me. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t even keep my teeth in my mouth! I felt ashamed, and embarrassed. Heck I even debated if I should share it with you guys because it was so mortifying. My eyes would sometimes well up post-surgery when it was time for me to eat because all I could eat for the first 2 weeks were soft-ish food like tuna sandwiches (with the crust cut off) or porridge. I had to be careful not to eat things that were too hard because I could only chew on one side of my mouth. My remaining root-canaled tooth that had already taken a beating didn’t quite feel “right” yet. That one is also earmarked for extraction – but only after I replace my 2 missing teeth with dental implants, so I’ll need it to last me till then. I was a pitiful sight – I felt so sorry for myself.

I would look at strangers and friends and I would admire their lovely teeth. A full set of them. And I would feel sad. I already took out 6 for when I had my braces, and I didn’t have a lot more to spare. I have a friend who would feel sad as she watched couples with babies, because she couldn’t have one of her own. I can’t say I know what that feels like, but for me it came pretty close to describing what I felt at the time.

At the time, to me, the luckiest people in the world are those who have their full set of teeth.

They can eat whatever they want, whenever, wherever. In my mind they can conquer the world! Or a restaurant! It’s a stretch, I know. I bet they have other problems too, hidden underneath the surface. But at least they had working teeth – the crazy me would espouse. My mind was spinning, with me saying all these silly things in my mind and yet I was still rational enough to give the pessimistic side of me kick-in-the-ass rebuttals. It was a perpetual tug of war in my head.

But life goes on.

I consoled myself by telling myself that we, as humans are in a perpetual state of decay. It just turned out that my teeth decayed faster than the rest of me. The same as how some people’s knees bust up faster than others because they’re athletes. Maybe I’ve been eating more than others? Maybe I’m a food athlete? Who knows?

A good friend told me that if a tooth isn’t doing its job properly anymore, it’s time for it to go. I told her I felt sad, to which she said the tooth wasn’t alive and can’t feel pain so I didn’t have to feel bad. Plus, a tooth’s job was to allow you to grind food up to bits – whether it’s a natural tooth or not shouldn’t matter at this point. I burst out laughing, and felt better immensely.

A month in after the surgery, I’m eating properly again (I’ll still need to watch out for those sly hard bits like bone, sand, etc, that work their way into my food). I chew slower, and more carefully. I brush 4-5 times a day (because darn it I can try harder). I still have most of my teeth. I no longer feel angry or sad. Sometimes it creeps up on me, but it goes away quickly. I recently went to Melbourne for a holiday with the husband, and came back refreshed. I was surprised at myself for being able to eat almost normally there (minus the tougher bits). I’m laughing a lot again. I feel lucky.

The truth is, nothing is ever perfect. It won’t ever be.

I’ll only be able to have a full set of working teeth next year as I’m waiting for my bone to heal for dental implants to be placed. And then there’ll be more waiting before I can actually have a tooth screwed on. I’m lucky I’m able to afford them – plus, I’m still young so it’s a better long term prognosis. So a tiny part of me will be metal. That’s a bit badass I suppose.

I’ve always wanted as many things to be settled as possible before I can truly begin my work. Didn’t matter if it was the big stuff, or the little stuff. I’d check things off my list one by one to finish off all the work that would potentially distract me from the major work I needed to do. And often, that leads me with not enough time to do the things I should be doing. I’ve realised that it’s foolhardy to continue to maintain such order. The the older I get, the more challenges I’ll face to my emotional and physical health. It could be mine, or my loved ones, family, friends and even my dogs. It’s inevitable. Things are often out of my control. Sometimes those lists will have to go unchecked.

Perfection is an illusion.

It’s an excuse we give ourselves – that everything has to be in order for us to truly begin, or to continue from where we left off. The idea that chaos is bad, and that the only way you’ll jump is if you already know how something will turn out. We can’t know for sure, but how many times have we made that sort of rationalisation? I know I’ve done it. But rolling up your sleeves and getting things done, even if you’re afraid of it, is what has made me take the little steps needed to move forward. Like plonking myself down on that dental surgeon’s chair so that he can remove 3 of my back teeth in one go – a process that took almost two hours because one didn’t want to come out (I wish I could have kept you too, buddy) and I could start to feel the things he did in my jaw because the local anaesthetic was wearing off.

We can’t always have everything in order before we begin.

The only thing that can and will work is if you take small steps forward among the chaos around you, towards where you want to be. It’s hard because pain – whether it’s physical, mental or emotional – is very real. But the great news is that things and situations don’t last, whether it’s good or bad, painful or joyful. They make up the combination of moments that pass in life, that stop and envelope you before it drifts away to become a distant memory.

I can’t ever have a full set of natural teeth again. But hey, at least I have options.

And so do you.

You there. Yes, you – dear readers with all your glorious natural teeth – do me a favour: go ahead and crunch a couple of nuts in your mouth on my behalf and tell me again what is holding you back from conquering the world?

[Illustrated pattern by Bouffants & Broken Hearts]
  advice, illustration, inspiration


18 thoughts on “Perfection.

  1. Pingback: Artel

  2. Ouch! 17 years ago, I ruptured my knee at age 23, in the midst of something simple, because I had poor coaching. A year later, I was able to get it repaired, and two years later, I could return to previous activity…but I discovered I couldn’t really. But this left room for other things, which has been better in the long run.
    You will have a different relationship to food now – and that may turn out to be interesting. To everything there is a season.
    We pay for wisdom and insight with teeth and knees and eyesight and achy backs and wrinkles…and the only choice we have about it is to keep eyes peeled for the wisdom and pick it up, like coins in the parking lot, easy to overlook in the busyness and jostling demands of Expectations.

  3. Hi Amy, I’m really sorry to hear that you went through all this, but thank you for writing about it.
    I can understand how upset you felt because I felt similarly a few months ago about one of my teeth – a bit broke off when I was eating some chocolate that had been in the freezer. I had the filling replaced, which was a large filling to start with, and then three months later the tooth started to feel odd and I knew the root had begun to die. I didn’t even know if it would be possible to have a root canal done because so much of the tooth had already been removed, and I felt angry at myself for not taking better care of my teeth, and upset that I’d have to pay for more dental treatment. An incident stands out vividly in my mind, where I Googled ‘what to do if your tooth starts to die’ (just in case it was possible to reverse the process!! of course, it’s irreversible) and one of the articles was titled, “What happens when you don’t take care of your teeth”. That just tipped me over the edge and I burst into tears, because I really tried to take care of them. It just felt like this thing was happening to me and I should have been able to control it, but I couldn’t. Anyway, I have had the root canal done now (finished on Wednesday), and how long it will last I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to being able to chew with the left side of my mouth again. At least until the next dental emergency!!
    Thank you for sharing your story and helping me (and probably others too) feel less alone in caring so much about things like this. I think the stress of it takes its toll on your health in other ways too, so I hope you get the chance to relax a bit now and feel better.

    • Holly, I’m so sorry to hear about your tooth! It happens to the best of us, and I know exactly how you felt when you went and Googled things too, so I sometimes try not to do too much of it (it makes me worry even more!)

      And you are right, it has been stressful! I’ve been able to relax a lot more after my trip and to not think about things I have no control over; I just need to be a bit more careful about what I put in my mouth for now.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story – to know that there are others out there who felt the same thing I did makes it all not so terrifying!

  4. Hi Amy!
    I’m sorry to read about all of this! but it’s great that you are ok now.
    I know the feeling, something small for others but so big for you.
    I really hope you recover from all of these 🙂
    best wishes!

  5. Oh Amy, sounds intense! I think it’s really outstanding that you are able to frame this difficult personal experience in a larger metaphorical sense as it relates to all our personal/professional attitudes. A very valuable reminder. On a smaller scale, whoooo boy I have teeth drama of my own, and I think we have so many rarely discussed emotions and societal attitudes about our chompers! Tremendous shame and anxiety and so many expectations of beauty, class, health, et cetera. It’s a doozy. Wishing you happy chewing.

  6. Amy,

    How did you know I needed this? 🙂 Sorry you had to go through so much, I’m finding the rough spots make the good parts shine even more and remind me to be thankful for all I do have. Thank you for sharing this post.

    Now I need to jump in, Perfection, I slay you!

  7. I relate. I bit into a stale KIND bar, broke a tooth, decided against the root canal and just had it pulled. The loss of the tooth and the trauma of the extraction, I’m not kidding, sent me into some kind of depression. My plans and goals and motivations just stopped. Now the tooth next to the giant space in my mouth has a severe sensitivity that the dentist is calling broken tooth syndrome. Well whatever…this tooth stuff is miserable. I totally understand what you have gone through.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your story and being brave enough to use it to help others. Every time we go through an experience like this we come out the other side a changed person. Yes, there are the physical changes that we wear like badges of our struggle, but there are also the deeper changes to our interior worlds. Your wisdom teeth may be gone, but they have been replaced with the wisdom of experience and growth. All the best with the rest of your recovery!

  9. Can I just say THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU..

    This came at the exact right moment, I was just talking to a friend saying how I feel like nothing is working and that I felt like I had wasted this year. Things are not great, I have no social life, I’m back at my mother’s house and I have no job or freelance work.

    Then I remembered I’m not dead yet. I can still do this. I’m alive and healthy, I have a roof over my head, I have a volunteer job at a community workspace, I am continuing to work on my art and hopefully I will finish my short story by December.

    It’s not the same thing, but I understand that emotional pain of feeling like you did everything you could and still it’s not good enough. Of being lied to by the dentists and having life just stop because of everything taking over and holding you back from achieving your goals.

    So as I crunch down on some nuts I’ll start working on my options. I hope you recover fully and soon and again Thank you for sharing your story.

  10. Amy,
    I have a (pretty much) full time job, so my dreams of not having a 9-5 job and doing what I love by making art keeps drifting away, settling for what’s safe. I stop myself, saying I won’t succeed anyway, so why try. I realize it’s kind of a depressing view, and possibly not true.

    But your emails and blogs always remind me of my dreams and encourage me to try! Thanks so much for sharing! I hope you’re doing much better now!

  11. As someone who’s had to deal with some pretty serious teeth issues I can relate to this. I’ve had 2 molars extracted and I definitely experience them as a mini trauma – the first one in particular for reasons. Not long ago I read something scary on the internet that applied to my particular case and it left me in tears for fear of more potential teeth troubles in the future! I even have nightmares about teeth issues. So no, I don’t think you’re being silly. Good luck with the implants!

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