By Lee Thompson
Abstract: This is the first-person narrative of a young woman’s pursuit of beauty and how it went awry. Illness narratives come in three types: restitution, quest, and chaos. Although she is still on a quest, there are aspects of chaos in this woman’s story. Shame and humiliation are subtexts in patients’ stories, but physicians rarely hear them. These emotions are not generally inquired about during the truncated medical encounter.
All I wanted to have perfect teeth.
In America, if you want to be beautiful, you have to have perfect white teeth. As I blindly pursued my goal, no one ever informed me that whitening my teeth could ruin them; when I ultimately found this out, I was devastated.
Although my dentist tried to save what teeth he could, he actually made my problem worse. No one told me what to expect. I was terrified at the prospect of losing more teeth. I reached a point where I had lost all of my back teeth, and was now forced to use my front teeth for chewing. They began to break down and fracture. Now I was faced with a tough choice.
Two weeks before I turned 32, I went out to lunch with my best friend. I had been eating little, because I feared I would break another tooth. I was so famished that I devoured my meal. Suddenly I had this awful pain, and that’s when I realized I had literally eaten my own tooth. All the nerves at the root were exposed. The choice had been made for me, and I cried at the thought of what would come next.
Against my dentist’s advice, I made the tough choice to have all of my teeth removed. I searched for another dentist and found an oral surgeon who promised to help. He counseled me that my choice would be life-changing. As I told him my story, I explained that because of the extensive breakdown of my teeth, I felt removing all of them would be best for me. I had endured constant pain for years, and had reached the point where it was too much to bear. He agreed that I wasn’t crazy, that my reasons were valid, and that they needed to be addressed.
I was scared to death when the day of my surgery arrived. Would my decision would come back to haunt me? The road ahead was hard. Edentulous, I spent three months in hiding, because I could not face the girl I now saw in the mirror. She was not the one I wanted to be.
Because I didn’t have the money to pay for quality dentures, the ones I eventually got didn’t fit right and were uncomfortable. My old dentist seemed to be more concerned about the money than about helping a young woman to feel better about herself. I was now getting my health insurance through the State, and my old dentist seized yet another opportunity to profit from my misfortune.
Even though he hadn’t approved of my decision to have all of my teeth extracted, he offered to provide my new dentures. But he took impressions of my mouth too soon after the extractions, and then it took 6 months to get the dentures. This attempt to fix the problem only made it worse and I finally gave up and walked away feeling like I had been taken advantage of. His parting words have stuck with me to this day. “Look,” he said, when he finally handed me the dentures, “you’ll be a pretty girl again; no more ‘sunk-in’ look for you.” Little did he know that that one comment would change how I would view myself from then on.
This has become my daily struggle. Because I could not afford quality dentures for myself, I still see an ugly girl when I look in the mirror. I can’t look anyone in the eye when I talk to them, because I’m afraid of that moment – that look in their eyes – when they suddenly realize what’s different about me. It hurts me to watch other people as they try to figure out just what is off-putting about me. Whenever I speak, I find I frequently have to repeat what I say, because people are constantly staring at my mouth. This upsets me, and my self-esteem plummets. There are wonderful people in my life who constantly tell me that I am beautiful, but I don’t believe them. Having no teeth does a number on your head.
In this struggle I feel alone, even as I realize that many people live with the same sad situation. Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford the dentures I so desperately need to allow me to feel normal again. People are quick to judge what they don’t understand; they blame the person going through the traumatic experience. I won’t smile if I don’t have my dentures in, and that has led to depression and suicidal thoughts. Feeling worthless is not a good place to be. When I was younger, I used to do modeling; that helped my self-esteem. Now it’s up to me to appreciate the beauty in myself and not look to others to find it.
This is my story, and I live everyday. To anyone struggling along a similar path, know that you are not alone.