Prescription for Stress
I have always taken great pride in my teeth. I was that teenager who did everything the orthodontist told me, including threading dental floss between my braces each night so that I could get between all of my teeth. My dentist calls my teeth “flawless” and “textbook.” I just smile and flash my pearly white babies – I know. They’re pretty awesome.
Now, these beautiful teeth do not happen naturally. Oh no. I am an oral hygiene freak. I brush and floss – Every. Day. I can count on one hand the number of days in a year that I go without flossing. It doesn’t matter if it is 4 a.m. and I have spent the entire day running between jobs and then the entire night partying it up with friends – I may never remember to drink water after 3 rum and cokes, but I will be damned if I forget to brush and floss my teeth. I steer away from sodas (except the ones with rum, obviously), rarely chew gum, and drink coffee through a straw. There will be no discoloration of these teeth!
In the fall of 2010 I was living at home and balancing two part-time jobs: one at Talbots, a boutique clothing store, and the other at a Holiday Inn Express. Like so many of my classmates I found post-graduate life a bit less glamorous than expected, but I was making the best of it.
One night, while working the evening shift at the Holiday Inn, I bit into an apple and was immediately met with a searing pain in my gums. I assumed the apple was just extra hard and sliced it into more manageable sizes. When I got home and started brushing my teeth my heart stopped – red bloodstains were rapidly coloring the white foam between my lips. I rinsed my mouth out and leaned into the mirror. My gums were noticeably puffy. My teeth looked practically miniscule under the dark pink throbbing lining. I touched my gums and was again met with the same pain as when I bit into the apple.
What was happening? Gingivitis? How could that be possible? Only people who never brushed or flossed got gingivitis and that was definitely not me. Gum cancer?? Is that even a thing? Heart condition? There was an episode on Frasier where Niles has a constant tooth ache and thinks nothing of it until Daphney finally makes him go to the doctor and it turns out he needs a double bypass or something equally scary and heart-related as that.
I took a breath and quieted my hypochondriac thoughts for the night. I should at least wait a few days before jumping to conclusions. Maybe it was an allergic reaction to something.
For the next two weeks I treated my gums as tenderly as possible. I brushed and flossed lightly, sucked on ice cubes to numb the pain, and stuck to mostly liquids. Finally, the swelling went down and my gums went back to normal.
A month later and I am at the dentist. I wait for my typical clean bill of health, but something strange happened. My oral hygienist finishes cleaning my teeth and asks which of the 2 dentists I’d like to see. She doesn’t compliment my teeth like she normally does, but that’s okay. I say it doesn’t matter and luckily she comes back with the really cute single one. Dr. Clemens looks into my mouth with his gorgeous green-blue eyes. (I’ll admit that part of my motivation for having such beautiful teeth has been to not let Dr. Clemens down.) He always says, “You’re teeth are beautiful as usual, Georgia” and I know that he is really saying was, “You’re beautiful as usual, Georgia.”
Instead, Dr. Clemens asks, “Have you been stressed lately?”
Okay. Maybe he’s just wanting to get to know me a little – actually learn about my life other than through my enamel. “Not really?,” I respond, “I mean, no more than usual I guess?”
“Your gums are red like they’ve suffered a trauma.”
Trauma?! What?! Oh my god it’s like what happened on Frasier!
“They were kind of swollen and sore a while ago,” I admit, “I don’t know why. I brush and floss every day!” Dammit, gums, what are you doing? Get your shit together!
“This kind of trauma isn’t caused by a lack of hygiene,” he explains, “it’s brought on by stress. Extreme stress. Has anything happened lately?”
“No? I don’t think I’m stressed. I mean, I’m living at home and working two jobs, which is not where I saw myself after college – so it’s like normal stress?”
“Well your gums say otherwise,” he says. “And when you’ve had this once it’ll be easy to get again.” Great. So now my gums are ruined as well as my reputation with McDreamy.
Dr. Clemens sent me away that day feeling dejected, broken, and with a prescription for antibiotics that would temporarily cure my Stressed Gums Disease.
Since this devastating doctor’s visit, my gums have swelled up twice. Each time the cause was not completely clear. Luckily, I have a friend who can call-in prescriptions for me so I do not have to admit my continual dental failings to Dr. McDreamy (who, sadly, now has a Mrs. McDreamy).
A week ago, I went to a friend’s house for pizza and a movie. As I bit into a piece of crust I felt that familiar tenderness just behind my canine tooth. Throughout the movie I rubbed my tongue on this spot over and over feeling the swelling and the slight ache my tongue was causing. It was happening again. My gums were alerting me that something in my life was causing me great stress. What is it gums? Is it my job as a barista that I am wholly incompetent at? Is it my mother’s daily question of, “What jobs have you applied to today?” and “You should find a job where you can use your writing talent.” Is it the stress of being in a long distance relationship with someone who clearly never wants to live in a big city? Is it the stress of living with a roommate who has the mental capacity of a 5 year old and had to be taught how to slice a potato? Is it the stress of having an indefinite guest taking over my living room, who sells himself on the internet and frequents my room in a leather jockstrap to check himself out in my floor length mirror when I just want to watch my Grey’s Anatomy in peace?
You know what? On second thought. I’m just going to stock up on those antibiotics. I think I’m going to need them for a while.