Your teeth can say a lot about you.
By first grade, all of my baby teeth had already been replaced by adult ones. My dentist told me I had a mature mouth. By fifth grade, when most kids were first getting their braces on, I was getting mine off. I was given two retainers to keep my teeth in place: One clear with sparkles; the other pink.
Perhaps my mature mouth symbolized a readiness for the world, and a mature demeanor that manifested itself in my social and academic life. As a kid, I was surprisingly level-headed and goal-oriented. I knew what I wanted (college), and I was 100 percent motivated to get there. I remained steadfast in my determination to achieve my dreams, just as my teeth remained steadfast with the help of my retainers that I so diligently wore every night.
When I got my college acceptance letter, my life's ambition had been realized. My new goal was now simply to graduate. Short-sighted as it was, I felt certain that post-graduation was a vortex that would suck me into a wormhole of opportunity without much effort, or planning, on my part.
After college, however, I was faced with the rude awakening that this vortex was not the cornucopia of dreams that I was hoping for, but instead was a black hole of nothingness. This left me overwhelmed and wanting to take a backseat to life, but after awhile I, like my unmoving retainer-bound teeth, had become stagnant.
Then I lost my retainers.
Without my retainers, I began to furiously grind my teeth while sleeping. My once perfect teeth were regressing to a state of deterioration, and I knew I had to see the dentist to sort things out.
I had no idea that this dentist appointment would be the one to rule them all.
The hygienist comes in and starts to clean my teeth like always. While I feel generally neutral towards my dentist, I have a special kind of hatred for this particular hygienist.
She is your typical plastic LA female nightmare in her 50s who is "not like a regular mom," but an "I'm a cool mom," kinda gal. She happens to have a daughter who is exactly my age, and is exactly more successful than I.
"My daughter is doing blah blah blah and this blah blah blah label picked her up, and she has a blah blah blah record coming out. Oh! Here is a picture of her (she's hot). Dating a producer... blah blah blah. So, what have you been up to lately?"
Mouth full of fluoride, I say, "I jusss, I.....ugh...I onno...Imma sti...figgurin it owt?"
Her eyes flash in pure satisfaction.
As saliva is being suctioned from my mouth, I stare at the ceiling poster with the blue sky and clouds that reads, "Reach for your Dreams; The Sky is the Limit," and think, Can everyone, please shut up? How did I get here? I used to be ahead of the game. So motivated, determined and mature. I mean, I lost all my baby teeth in first grade!
The hygienist purses her lips and smiles, and only when she feels sufficiently reassured that her daughter is, in fact, better than me in every way, she tells me the cleaning is done. By the time the dentist comes in, I am defeated and broken.
I say "ahhh," and the dentist pokes metal things in my mouth.
It hurts, but not as much as my pride hurts.
He says, "You grind your teeth."
I say, "Ya... I know."
The man looks deep into my soul and says, "Grinding is usually a sign of stress or anxiety. Your teeth are much more damaged than they should be for someone your age. Do you want to talk about it?"
Do I want to talk about it? Well, considering that I am one billion times worse off than the dental hygienist's daughter, and my once perfect teeth are now a damaged representation of my damaged self, ya, it actually would be kind of nice to talk about it.
"I guess I have been kind of stressed out..."
He sits back, and puts his glasses on, and nods for me to continue. I can feel a 20-something year old rant coming on, but the genuine concern in my therapist's, I mean my dentist's, I mean my dentapist's, eyes tells me that it's okay to go on.
"Well, I guess my biggest issue is that...Okay, well I have a lot of issues actually. I live at home, I don't know what I want to be when I grow up, and when I see people my age on a career path, I secretly wish that they would fail in all their endeavors."
The dentist tells me that it sounds like I have a lot on my shoulders, and prompts to keep talking.
I continue, "I'm basically exactly like Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar when she's talking about the fig tree... You know, when she's all like... this tree has lots of figs, each one representing a possible life path, and there are figs upon figs upon figs, and I'm just looking at this tree deciding which fig to eat, but by the time I've decided on a fig, they've all fallen to the ground. You know? Okay, whatever, what I'm trying to say is, I have a lot of interests and no one passion, so how can I choose a path when it means leaving so many others behind? And in being scared to choose one, I choose none. Basically I haven't delved deep into any one thing and it has left me with no skills. I can't tell you how many times I have Googled 'what to do if you have no skills.' All my figs are dead."
I feel like a fool. I have never really been to a therapist in my adult life, but I'm pretty sure the dentist is not the person I am supposed to confide my first world problems in.
Instead of telling me to stop whining though, he takes off his glasses, gets up real close and says, "Your problems are justified and legitimate, and I feel for you. It is a stressful time, and you are doing your best. Just remember, you must live through the adversity of your 20's to appreciate your 30's. This time, and your struggle, is valuable and real. Live the questions and arrive at the answers."
Suddenly I am very aware of the white light emanating from my dentist's head. None of my issues have been solved, but at least I feel validated by someone that isn't my Nana.
The dentist looks at me and says, "Things will get better, but in the meantime, here's a mouth guard."
I know that the story of the 20-something year old has been told (a la Lena Dunham), but going through this period of transition has really...what's the word...sucked. The mouth guard was the answer to my grinding problem, and it serves as a nightly reminder about being proactive in life. I took the first step in making the appointment, and as a result, my teeth are already healing, or at least they are not getting worse.
My teeth and my dentapist taught me a valuable life lesson: I can't just live the questions and arrive at the answers. Instead I must actively live the questions (make the appointment), and actively grab for the answers (the mouth guard).
So while my younger teeth may have been perfect and mature, my 20s teeth are uncertain and moving. My 20s have been about finding coping mechanisms and external aids to help keep me, and my teeth, on track.