I have bad teeth. Yellow, with brown and white spackled patches, the enamel is worn thin enough that 5 or 6 times in the past few years alone, I've had to have a root canal after an exposed nerve became infected. Part of the reason for my bad teeth is probably genetics — growing up, I remember doctors asking if I had the habit of sucking on lemons in an attempt to understand my thin enamel.
I should say I "had" bad teeth. I still do — the bottom row is just as mottled and worn as the top used to be. But my top row of teeth — the ones visible when I smile — have all been replaced by porcelain crowns. Crowns were necessary rather than veneers because the backs of my teeth were just as decimated as the fronts, and crowns fit over the entire tooth. My new crowns will help build up and protect my teeth from further damage, but their primary purpose in my mind was cosmetic.
I've been haunted by my bad teeth for years. Sure, they were embarrassing. In a picture of myself, I always saw my teeth first, in the instance that I accidentally forgot myself and smiled open-mouthed. Occasionally someone on the Internet would mention them — the troll who included "yellow teeth" on the list of my flaws that also included my "saggy, 50-year-old tits," the dickhead on a bodybuilding forum who wrote that I would be fuckable after six months at the gym and a round of Crest Whitestrips. (In retrospect, that seems fairly attainable and therefore less insulting.)
Unfortunately, my dental damage was far beyond the reach of Crest Whitestrips. And it wasn't just physical. Every dentist visit, every unexpected root canal expense, every time I looked in the mirror at the broken-off and yellowed stubs, was a reminder of a whole slew of decisions I wish I could unmake.
The decision to drink alcohol in a way that became alcoholic, that led to the decision to use cocaine daily for several years. And probably most relevantly, the decision to repeatedly flood my mouth with my own stomach acids for over a decade as an on-again-off-again bulimic. I accept that I made these decisions, although I don't know that I had much choice — I was so young and had experienced so much trauma that I was probably using the only tools I knew of to survive. And the nature of addiction as I understand it means that once a substance enters my body, I am unable to either control myself or take care of myself. I can only chase more substance.
However I explain my past, I have to accept the consequences of my actions.
And one of those most visible consequences has always been my fucked-up teeth.
I sort of felt I would always have to deal with that consequence. But since I've gotten my finances better under control, I've been able to put away some savings, and I decided to just ask for some information on cosmetic dentistry at my last appointment.
I found out both that the crowns I needed would cost less than I thought (around $5,500, when I had assumed it would be at least $8,000) and that my dentist's office has a very easy and manageable payment plan option so I didn't have to have all the money upfront. (I'll be paying my teeth off in monthly installments over the next year.)
It all happened really quickly. My dentist took impressions of my teeth that day, I filled out a form to get financial clearance, and I made an appointment to begin the process of getting my new teeth.
Getting veneers or crowns is actually a pretty extreme decision. In order to fit them onto your teeth, the dentist has to shave down your enamel, altering the shape of your actual teeth. That process took place over four dazed, drooling, putty-mouthed hours at the dentist; I didn't look in the mirror after it was complete, because I'm pretty sure it would have freaked me out forever. My natural teeth look crazy now; I'm committed to maintaining these crowns. In the case of an apocalyptic situation that shuts down modern dentistry, I am screwed.
In my case, the crown made sense because the damage was so extensive that not only did they make my mouth look better, but they helped build up my worn-down teeth and protect them from further damage. That's also why I needed crowns as opposed to veneers, which just cover the front of the tooth.
As a side note, I'm super good at saying something impulsively and freaking people out in these kinds of situations — I have a friend who compares this reaction to the emotional version of watching slowly someone roll one of those store grates down in front of you.
"It must be nice seeing people at their most attractive all day" went over okayish, but "I understand if my sexiness with these wads of cotton shoved in my cheeks is a little overwhelming right now" really got me the emotional door-slam from my dentist. Probably rightfully so. WHY must I bring up sex while strangers have their hands in my mouth?
After my teeth were shaved down and new impressions were made, the dentist fitted the temporary crowns over my newly prepared teeth. I was especially praying no zombies would attack in the two weeks before my next appointment. At least the final product is designed to last for 5 to 15 years. The temporaries just have to last until the dentist gets the custom crowns back from the tooth-making factory or whatever.
Even just wearing the temporaries was life-changing. For the first time in years, I wasn't afraid to smile with my mouth open. At one point, I chipped the temporary on a fork and had to go back for a quick tune-up, but for the most part they felt natural and gave me no trouble.
Two weeks later, my dentist pulled off the temporaries and fitted the permanent crowns onto my teeth, in an appointment that took less than an hour. Once they were on, he shaved and smoothed down little spots all over until my bite felt totally natural.
At my previous appointment, we had chosen the color. He had warned me away from the whitest blinding white, since too white signals fake and also wouldn't match my untouched bottom teeth. He had told me that the final product would look prettier and a bit more natural than the temporaries.
I should mention that none of the procedures were painful. During the previous appointment, my dentist had used a local anesthetic, which wasn't necessary for the final appointment. Nothing ever felt uncomfortable, the process just took a long time.
When he was done, he passed me the mirror and I looked at my new, white, unchipped, stain-resistant teeth.
I tried to thank the dentist in a really sincere way and tell him how meaningful this procedure was for me, but he already thought I was weird and kind of waved me off.
And I know I paid this guy to do it, but the truth is that he gave me a life-changing gift. Your teeth affect your life every day, they're a key part of the initial impression you make on others. And for me, for years, they had been quietly making me feel ashamed every time I opened my mouth.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated my sixth anniversary of sobriety. That's six years since I've ingested a mood-changing substance stronger than caffeine. Six years since I was a girl stumbling through Manhattan in a blackout, missing my wallet and phone, falling into strangers and spending an hour trying to find a bar that was a block away.
I'm amazed that I continue to change. A few years in, I felt like my healing had sort of peaked. Okay, this is gonna be it, I thought. I won't drink or use drugs, but I'll always carry around this hole, this yawning chasm that I'll need to occasionally stuff with sex or shopping or food or whatever.
For years into my sobriety, I continued to make myself throw up. Six months might go by, or 12, but eventually I'd eat too much and in my discomfort, the same old solution would present itself quietly to me.
When I first quit drinking, I was sober, sure. But now I was just a screwed-up sober person instead of a screwed-up drug addict/alcoholic. I've had to work through my other issues achingly fucking slowly, making the kind of inching progress you only see in the panoramic span of the big picture. Like when my anniversary comes around, and I look back over six years to see how far I've come.
That addict's hole is still there, but it's continued to shrink every year. Until one day I turn around and realize that I don't make myself throw up any more, haven't for years.
That blacked-out, stumbling girl from six years ago feels in some ways like she has nothing to do with me anymore.
Not only do I have so many more amazing things in my life, but I have some integrity today, and some respect for myself. One of the things I learned in recovery is that "esteemable actions build self-esteem." I still screw up and do shitty things, but when I do I try to to admit it and make amends as best I can. I can show up for people today, and I'm proud of that. Six years ago, there was nothing to be proud of about myself, only waves of toxic shame that hit each morning that I woke up to realize anew all the ways I had fucked up the night previously.
Having better-looking teeth didn't exactly make me happier — it was subtler than that. Having better-looking teeth took away one of the subtle undercurrents of shame that contributed to the feeling that I was not a worthwhile person, that I had somehow "ruined" myself during those years of darkness.
I still have plenty of issues to work through. It will probably take another six years, probably more. But while I have to stay connected enough to that six-year-ago girl to remember that I can't drink safely, we no longer have much in common.
And now I no longer have to be reminded of her every time I open my mouth to see one of the last things connecting us: My fucked-up drug addict, bulimic teeth. I don't have to be scared to smile.