This is the second of a two-part post. In Part I, I analyzed a brave and powerful story by Lauren Fleshman and discussed how to find the monster–the thing that prevents a hero from accomplishing her goal–in a story. In Part II, I’m hunting one of my own inner monsters.
It’s not difficult to find things I’ve been avoiding in my life. As you may have guessed from this blog, I like taking pictures. But I haven’t posted any pictures of myself for the last year. Why? I’ve had a hole in my mouth.
It’s difficult to even type this, which means I’m off to a good start.
I was born without a tooth. In dentist-speak, I am missing tooth # 10. It’s the upper tooth between my middle front tooth and my canine on my left side. When the other adult teeth formed in my mouth and pushed out my baby teeth, this one never showed up. I kept my baby tooth until I turned 30, and then a periodontist pulled it to make way for an implant.
But there was a problem.
My baby tooth had baby roots. Those little anchors didn’t stimulate my jaw bone as much as normal, adult roots. When bone isn’t stimulated, it begins to fade away; my body redirected its energy elsewhere, where vigorous chomping indicated I needed more reinforcement. Now there was not enough bone to support an adult-sized implant.
Instead of getting a new tooth, I received a bone graft and 6 months with a gap in the middle of my smile. I had a retainer with a fake tooth, but the periodontist had to file it down to leave room for the swelling. Once I healed, there was a large black space between my gum and the plastic tooth. It looked like a joke, like a child’s school-project copy of a tooth or something you’d buy from a costume shop. It also fit poorly, digging into my gums and rubbing the roof of my mouth raw. Unless I was very careful, I lisped if I spoke while wearing it.
The periodontist was finally able to wedge in the implant last summer, but that wasn’t the end of it. The “implant” turned out to just be the root portion of the new tooth: the post that holds the “crown” in place. I had to wait until the bone healed around my new, titanium root before I could close the gap in my smile. More months passed. I received good news and bad: the bone healed, but the tissue had receded, so I needed different work on my mouth. Then my new, custom tooth arrived in the wrong shape and size. As I write this, nearly a year and a half after my baby tooth was pulled, I’m still waiting for the permanent replacement.
These are all facts. None of them tell you why I avoided putting pictures of myself up on Facebook for the last year. None of them tells you how I felt. Even in this writing, I’m avoiding the things I’m afraid of.
So, these are my behavioral footprints. But where do they lead? What am I defending myself against?
When I ask myself those questions, I remember one night. It was a few weeks after my doctor pulled the stitches out and the stiff balloon of swelling under my left cheek finally deflated. I walked into the bathroom and smiled at myself. My lips were still a little lopsided, but my smile could have passed as normal on the street.
Except that it wasn’t my smile anymore. Between my front tooth and my canine was a dark hole capped with lumpy pink flesh. It looked alien. No, worse: it looked like the smile you’d see in an Internet meme. The smile on some cross-eyed, neckless, mulleted hillbilly. Inbred. Slovenly. Gross. Stupid. Poor.
In my mind, the holes in my mouth multiplied. My teeth twisted, yellowed, and rotted. I heard the chipper voices of dental hygiene cartoons from my childhood: “Now, remember, kids: brush your teeth twice a day or you’ll get cavities! Don’t forget to floss! Don’t eat too many sweets, don’t drink too much soda, or your gums will swell and your teeth will rot away and you’ll look like this!”
In that moment, I felt betrayed. I’d done everything right. And yet there I was, the very image of the fate dental miscreants brought down upon themselves.
I pictured myself walking down the street with a placard around my neck: “I brush my teeth twice a day, AND I floss! I was born without a tooth! I’m not one of those people! P.S. I’ve never played hockey in my life!” I pictured myself in a business meeting, smiling at something a potential client said. The potential client recoiled, stumbled over his words, made quick excuses, and left. I pictured myself trying to befriend a circle of strangers at a bar, making a joke and accidentally grinning at the punch line. The strangers stopped laughing and their smiles warped into expressions of disgust.
I wondered if I could get away with not smiling for the next six months, eight months, or however long it took. My eyes watered.
In the next moment, I began beating myself up. Oh, poor little privileged white girl. One little hole in your mouth and it’s the end of the world. There are people in your country, in your city, who never got dental care as a kid. There are people who can’t afford toothpaste. Ashamed of your first world problems? Too vain to smile at people? Worried that people will judge you, that they’ll think you’re “working class,” that you live in filth and poverty, that you’re beneath them? Think you’ve better than those people, the trailer trash? You thought you were too “nice” to look down on people like that, Ms. Bleeding-heart Liberal Goody Two-Shoes, didn’t you? But deep down inside, you don’t want to get mistaken for one of them. Sure, you have ideals–as long as you’re safe on the other side of the fence with your middle class friends. You’re right about one thing: those people are probably nice people if you meet them. Not vain, classist, and proud like you. But now your face is as ugly as your heart. And how much is in your bank account these days, hmm? Poor baby.
Fun stuff. Do you see the monster?
There are several fears here. Mostly, they boil down to my fear that other people will not want anything to do with me. I was bullied and socially isolated for years as a child, and it took me a long time to learn the social skills to make the friends I craved. I used to pretend to be a different person because I believed that I was fundamentally unlovable, and that if people knew who I really was, they’d leave. That was years ago, and I have a solid group of friends now. I also have a husband who knows exactly who I am and loves me because of it. But, on some level I will probably always fear that I’ll do one tiny thing wrong and suddenly find myself alone again.
The last two years have been a bit difficult socially–I moved to Seattle and I’m working from home, so making local friends has been a slow process. This has left me more vulnerable to my fear of rejection, and when losing my front tooth made my smile match several social stigmas, it wedged open a gap in my confidence.
There’s another, newer fear interwoven with my social anxiety: a fear of slipping into poverty. When I left DC, I quit my high-paying job to pursue my dream of writing professionally. I work part-time and I’m starting up an editing business, but the money I make is nowhere near what it was. My husband is also at a lower salary. We’re vulnerable to financial trouble now in a way that I haven’t been since I was just out of college and broke. Logically, I know that we have a safety net. But if something big goes wrong, “cosmetic” or non-life-threatening dental work will take second place to things like rent. Despite my care in saving for this procedure, I worry that I’ll wind up trapped–and I know that if I don’t fix the first hole in my mouth, my teeth will move and I’ll wind up with more gaps. If I don’t have a nice smile, some people may be less interested in working with me. This could make it more difficult to earn the money to climb up out of an economic hole. It probably won’t happen, but it could–and, thus, the fear. And because this fear is also partly social, it fed right into my larger fear of winding up friendless and alone.
Facing my reflection in the bathroom, I could recognize the monster ripping me up, but I was too overwhelmed to stop it. I pressed my lips together, walked away from the mirror, and shut the door behind me. When I went out in public, I wedged the uncomfortable retainer in my mouth and tried not to smile. I avoided people’s eyes, afraid of what I’d see in them. But my husband and my friends kept cracking jokes while we were out in public together. When I was silent, worried about lisping, they asked me questions and gently prodded me to talk. When I laughed and they didn’t recoil, a little bit of the monster’s power chipped away. The first time I smiled without the retainer in front of my friends, I was terrified–and nothing happened. My friends didn’t even blink. I slowly gained confidence, and I began leaving the retainer behind when I went camping.
I took hundreds of pictures on my backpacking trips, and I wanted to share them with my friends and family. But when I went to upload them, I couldn’t make myself hit the button. I knew that my friends, my family, and my mother in particular would wonder why I hadn’t included any pictures of myself. I knew they’d ask. On the other hand, if I posted my gap-toothed pictures, people I didn’t know well would see them: aunts and uncles, cousins, former coworkers, and friends of friends. People who might not be as kind as my close friends in Seattle had been. People who might be repulsed and whisper to others about how I’d really gone downhill, how I’d let myself go since they’d last seen me. My far-flung friends might stop talking to me, stop caring, and silently drift away from me. And what if one of those photos leaked out of my private social network and some stranger slapped a snide phrase across the top? What if I became a meme, a national laughingstock, like one of those photos that flashed through my mind on that night in the bathroom? I hesitated. The monster cracked its whip, and it won. My camping pictures sit unpublished in their folders. Before this post, I’ve put up exactly one picture of myself from the last year on this blog, and it does not include a smile.
I never had a reason to challenge the monster’s victory–until now.
Fleshman said that, after she finally clicked “Publish” and posted her photos for the world to see, she felt “totally free. I wasn’t embarrassed anymore; I was f—ing proud. I felt like I owned my body completely for the first time. Ever.”
At the end of her post, she challenged others to post unflattering pictures of themselves online. So–deep breath–here are some of the photos I’ve been hiding this past year. Whatever happens, happens. People will think of me what they will. I’m facing down my monster and setting my smile, and myself, free. I’m hitting “Publish.”