"Are you a daytime clencher or a nighttime clencher?"
"I do not clench at all," I think to myself. It is impossible to speak, so I shake my head no. I am in the dentist's office for my semi-annual cleaning, and the hygienist is rooting around in my mouth, asking probing questions while she probes with her pointed metal pick. I remember that Daniel Craig clenches his jaw and looks perfectly fierce, with all his muscles bulging and electric blue eyes blazing. If I were James Bond, I'd clench too, but I am not. Doing just fine, totally clenchless, here in the dental chair, thank you. My teeth have been fine for a long time and I expect that they will continue to be trouble-free for an equally long time into the future.
"Your filling back here looks a little bit concave, more so than the last time you were in. I'm seeing receding gums, worn teeth, that sort of thing. Sure signs of clenching all through here (pressing my gum with a latex-glove-clad fingertip). And here (tapping with the metal dental pick). And did you say you were flossing regularly?" The dental hygienist is going over my teeth with a fine-toothed comb, so to speak. She is going over my teeth with a lot of other things, too, and I am beginning to feel a bit worse for the wear. She asks me to open wide, and my jaw clicks loudly.
"Ah ha. TMJ," she says, "Your jaw muscles are probably clenching to try to adjust to the joint misalignment." She extracts her tools and leans into my view so I can see her a bit better. "Does your jaw sometimes dislocate when you chew bagels or apples? Hmmm?" I frown, and doubt is nudging under the doorway, creeping into the room.
I glance quickly at the hygienist who is again stuffing all of her fingers into my mouth all at once. She is talking to me and expecting answers. She's scraping, probing, polishing and using her squealing dental tool while looking serene, her teeth perfectly aligned and brilliantly clean.
"I'd like to observe your flossing technique," she says crisply, after removing her hands from my mouth finally.
This is akin to showing Yo-Yo Ma your cello technique. It will never measure up. Nevertheless, as requested, I show her what I can do, with plenty of wrist flexion, finger dexterity and long trails of floss flicking about in impressive ways. She's looking at me skeptically and sighing. I fail the flossing challenge. Too little up and down, not enough going around corners, and you're pressing too hard on the gums, she says. She smiles at me and puts all her fingers and a new length of floss back into my mouth to demonstrate the proper technique.
She is talking at length about taking the time to floss, soft pick, and brush regularly, and she goes on for a while about clenching, grinding, jaw misalignment and tooth wear. I am under the impression that my social life is over for good and that I must chain myself to my bathroom sink to remove every bacterium and bit of food that ever crosses my lips or risk edentulation immediately.
I leave the dental office and slink home in a funk, now slotted into the clenching and bad flossing categories of my hygienist's mind. I'm disappointed because I'd actually been brushing diligently, if not flossing regularly.
At home, I sit down to enjoy my lunch, hopeful that the dental visit will become a dim memory very soon. I bite into my fruit and feel an odd crunch in my mouth. Clink! A tooth lands on my plate. A tooth! Teeth don't just break off for no reason; they must be provoked. I don't recall biting down on anything like a rock or a nail (who knows, maybe I'd bitten a dental tool). I look at the tooth, explore my mouth with my tongue and feel a yawning gap back on the lower left side. I feel no pain and determine that I've broken a crown, most likely by clenching and exerting force on the thing. I wrack my brain to try to recall any preceding symptoms of impending tooth loss. Not a one comes to mind. I wonder if clenching causes amnesia, too.
"I am falling apart," I think. "Literally, my teeth are falling out of my head."
Now I begin to wonder if I also sleepwalk, sing off key or frighten small children. The creaking door that has held doubt at bay has been pushed open to reveal a host of unfortunate possibilities. I see that tooth lying innocently on my lunch plate and wonder what I might be in denial about, what else could be ready to blow at any second. I feel like parts of me are simply time bombs, ready to go off with no warning.
Ugh, maybe I have flat feet and varicose veins, too. Perhaps all my teeth will gradually land on my plate, one by one, when I least expect them to. I am not so sure about much of anything. Jeez, I thought I was healthy, in fine fettle.
I call the dentist's office. They can fit me in at 9 in the morning. They don't seem very concerned; they don't ask if there is pain (there isn't) or how I'm doing (I'm okay). Sometimes it's just nice to be fussed over and given a bowl of soup and gently rocked to sleep. I know I'm fine, and the tooth will be repaired again, so what's the fuss? I cannot climb out of the funk I am in. I don't want to look at the moon tonight; it could crash to the ground or it will be discovered that the man in the moon is a woman after all, or a cross dresser.
The next morning, I am up for my swim and greet my coaches. He has an obvious limp and she says she has poison oak all over her back, and it's getting worse. The limping coach had been wading in a creek, tripped on a rock, lost his shoe and smashed his bare foot on another rock. The poison oak coach's rash sounds gruesome and awful; no one wants that kind of itching. It must be awful. Wow, I think.
Knowing they are miserable takes the focus off my cratered mouth and my impending second dental visit to recrown the tooth. I am not alone in my suffering. Knowing they are worse off than I am helps my empathy reassert itself and my blue mood of self-pity evaporate. I look around at the other swimmers arriving and realize I am among friends who accept me the way I am, poorly flossed teeth and all. We share our war stories but also urge each other to swim a little further, return tomorrow. We can face our challenges anew now that we have suffered together for a little while.
I wouldn't go so far as saying I'm glad I have a tooth war story to tell, but I can say my friends are a pretty durable bunch, what with hobbled feet, itching rashes and bulging disks. It may be hard getting old, but it's much harder without friends.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way