As They Say, the Tooth Hurts

Let me begin by telling you two facts. 1: I am 50 years old. 2: I just had all four wisdom teeth removed, an indignity and a pain beyond which I thought I’d long aged.

As I remember, most people had their teeth out when they were teens. Apparently, my teeth had not yet come in and, when they did, I had no money for a dentist, and so I never even knew. Sure, I had tooth-coming-in pain, but I just smiled waveringly (I wouldn’t say it was a grin) and bore it, not knowing why things hurt so bad. Eventually, the pain subsided, and that was that. I sighed in relief and forgot about a dentist, figuring I could do without what I couldn’t afford. I never knew I had wisdom teeth, so I never knew I had to get them out.

And despite what most people who know me will say, I have a small mouth. Not much room for teeth, wise ones or otherwise. (Get it? Otherwise?) So when my dentist recently told me the wisdom teeth had to come out because they were making trouble for my other teeth, pushing them around and crowding them out, I dutifully made my appointment with an oral surgeon and waited with dread.

I’d like to say I was worrying about it for nothing, but boy, howdy, it is a procedure that really sucks. At least when you’re 50 and not taking any serious drugs. I stuck with ibuprofen instead of getting something more powerful prescribed, and sheesh. Poor choice.

I’ve been thinking about those four gone teeth this week. My mouth has protested their absence by swelling up, acting tender, throbbing and stinging and burning with pain. Somewhere, in some trash can, those teeth are rattling around. Perhaps by now they’ve been sent to a medical waste incinerator. Does dentin burn?

Those wisdom teeth had made my mouth a hostile home, bullying the other teeth, rearranging the landscape of my jaw to their liking, occupying all my thoughts with their need for management. They represented a leftover from my youth, a pain I had endured without questioning where it came from or what could be done about it.

Yet it was hurtful and difficult to excise them. I’m still in throbbing, burning misery a week later. It hurts in the spaces where the teeth used to be, but the remaining teeth are also hurting, apparently on high alert, the nerves rattled because of the uprooting. That kind of pain invades everything.

The teeth are a metaphor. That much is clear. I could go on, but I imagine it would interest few people to know that much about me, and what a metaphor means doesn’t mean much coming from its originator anyway.

In a move of great hypocrisy, a move toward TMI, I will tell you that when the dentist told me I was a “tongue thruster,” I laughed. Mostly because of the name. She explained that in sleep, swallowing, managing tension, even speaking, I push against my teeth with my tongue and displace them. Even so, I find it funny and I want to put it on a T-shirt: PROUD TONGUE THRUSTER.

Hilarious dental language aside, I’ve been thinking about this idea. Perhaps the whole displacement thing was not the fault of those wisdom teeth, but the result of my tongue applying pressure, insisting on its own need for space. I have always been told I have a big mouth, but perhaps this is not the problem. Perhaps it’s a case of a big, insistent tongue, a muscle which can only think to push against what tries to hold it back, reactionary and stubborn, and this is the consequence I bear for it.

As a woman (and before that a girl), as a first-gen kid, as a smart kid, I was always taught humility above all else. There is perhaps no greater sin, I learned, than to put myself above or in front of another. As a child, I was told that children should be seen and not heard, that one should always consider how one might make others feel before doing or saying anything. In college, I rebelled, and was frequently called—mostly by the boys I knew—“outspoken,” which is the crappy way of saying, “You talk too much and too loudly about things I don’t want you to talk about.” It is also the thing They seemed to say about all feminists in the 1980s. When I was assaulted by a male student at school, the college counselor told me that I had provoked him and, though I’d told them he had been stalking me and telling others he was going to kill me, the school would not intervene on my behalf (I kid you not. It was 1989). Later, after that incident, as a young adult I realized from, well, just walking down the street daily, how very public the property of my body was, how other folks seemed to see it as unquestionably available for their judgment, comment and use.

When I hit late middle age, I was heavy tired and then elated to discover that I had become mostly invisible in public. (Walking with a cane has helped in that department, too.) There are certainly drawbacks to such invisibility, but there is a useful side: no longer would I be pushed or pressured, bullied or used, forced to walk the gauntlet of a landscape hostile to women like me. If you don’t see me, then you won’t bother with me. Aging didn’t feel like a loss at all—it felt like a relief. My life got much better, much more my own, in many ways.

I believe they’re called “wisdom teeth,” by the way, because they come in later, around the time one should have become “wise” to the world. Is it telling that people usually have them yanked out upon their first appearance? Does wisdom produce that much disruption, crowding everything else out?

All this is probably the pain talking. I haven’t been thinking right, the drilling ache curdling my thoughts. I should have asked for some prescription painkillers, but I didn’t want my head muddled. Go figure.

Today both my dentist and her hygienist told me that I’m healing really well and that they’ll take the stitches out next visit. I will be unlaced, and my mouth can once again do what it will. That sounds like the relief of freedom, but also the weight of responsibility coming. All my mouth has ever done is get me into trouble.

They’ve removed all my wisdom and it hurts, but they tell me relief is around the corner and everything will get better. It is entirely possible that the stoic mentality by which I have always operated was the wrong choice in my case, and that the pain from the wisdom tooth extractions is neither the fault of those bullying wisdom teeth nor of my tongue and its pressure, but of me and my own choices, my own stubbornness. What if they take out the stitches and everything still hurts? I can’t imagine it not hurting—living with the constancy of pain, it’s hard to imagine an otherwise. I mean, pain is a signal. It’s hard to imagine being wise without feeling pain. I’m not exactly sure what to hope for. Red pill, blue pill.