The Metal Mouth Diaries: The Perfect Smile

This is me two days ago: lying curled in foetal position in a dark room on a damp spring day. Whimpering, I am just able to send a quick text to my friend, S: “How do the plastic surgery women in LA do it???”

Five seconds later, I send S a follow-up text: “Never, never have an unnecessary operation! Take it from me, it ain’t worth it!!!”

No, I hadn’t just come out of surgery for a new nose, a new jaw or a new pair of boobs. No, I hadn’t had my legs broken and metal rods inserted into the bone so I could grow a couple of inches taller à la Ethan Hawke in Gattaca (although, at five feet three, some might say I’m a little on the short side. I prefer to think of it as Buffy the Vampire Slayer height, or Sarah Michelle Gellar height. If she can kick ass at five feet three, so can I).

Yes, I had just come out of surgery. But it wasn’t for a smaller nose or a smaller jaw (though, come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind a smaller nose or a smaller jaw either.) It was for teeth extraction. Eight teeth, to be exact. Four wisdom teeth – “because you might as well get them done at the same time,” says my periodontist. And four more teeth for – yup, you guess it – braces.

Taking the plunge

How did I get here? Hang on, let’s rewind to the Easter weekend of 2012, just a few months earlier, when my friends and I decided to go skydiving for the first time in our lives. Now, you wouldn’t have thought jumping out of a plane might prove to be an impetus towards getting braces, but when you’re in my shoes, cringing in the skydiving shop at every flash of your wonky teeth on the video they’re playing back of your jump, well… let’s put it this way. It’s hard to look good when you’re skydiving. It’s worse when you’ve got bad teeth.

On the grand scheme of things, my teeth aren’t too bad. There are definitely worse teeth out there. Ever since I made the decision to get braces and started telling everyone about it, lots of people have told me, “But your teeth aren’t that bad!” On the other hand, there are the pictures. And the ex who told me, “Baby, your teeth are f***ed up and you need to get them fixed.”

But I figure, let’s take the plunge, let’s get them fixed up. Maybe I could get Invisalign or something. It couldn’t be that bad, right?

Parents, make your kids wear braces

“Why didn’t you make me wear braces when I was a kid?” I ask my mom on the phone.

“You didn’t want them!” she protests. “I didn’t want to force you to do anything you didn’t want to.”

“You should have,” I grumble. “You should have made me wear braces when I was in school. I would have been miserable and ugly and pimply with glasses and braces, but at least I would have the perfect smile now. What kind of parent are you?”

An indignant squawk erupts on the other end of the line, demanding to know what kind of ungrateful daughter I was. She has a point. I would have hated her for making me wear braces. But – and this is a big but – parents, take note. Make your kids wear braces. They’ll thank you for it later. Kids, you’ll hate your parents. But you’ll definitely thank them for it later.

The price of perfection

I start researching braces and prices zealously. I look up veneers, lingual braces, transparent braces, Invisalign. I get a reference from my dentist for an orthodontist. “Don’t dentists do braces?” I ask my sister, puzzled. “Why do I need to go see an orthodontist? What is an orthodontist?”

The dental industry is still having the last laugh on me with that one. Not only do I have to see an orthodontist, I also have to see: a periodontist, an oral hygienist, a surgeon to perform my teeth extractions and the anaesthetist who would knock me out with general anaesthetic so the surgeon could extract said teeth.

For anyone who’s thinking of getting braces – the price of the braces in itself isn’t too bad and especially not with the right health insurance. What really kills you is everything else – and the initial consultation fees that everyone charges you (this is how people in the dentistry world get rich, on consultation fees). Everything in the dental industry is a highly specialised field and no one will put any sort of braces on you until you have seen all the other specialists there are to see. They are way craftier than car mechanics. (Side note: I once Googled “Honest Mechanics in Perth”. There are none.)

Anyway, there I am, gulping and nodding and agreeing to pay these consultation fees and spending many an afternoon calling up my hundred and one specialists’ hundred and one receptionists to arrange a hundred and one appointments (every one of them are booked to the hilt and if you miss one appointment, tough luck on getting a next appointment ASAP). I will have to say, though, all the receptionists are really lovely, kind, patient women. They must have to deal with confused patients like myself constantly. Also, they must know where the fees are coming from – my ever-shrinking bank account.

And then we come to the point of no return: the teeth extractions. Once I get my teeth extracted, there is no going back. I will have to go through with this Farce of Vanity.

But I’m going a little fast here. The bad news from my orthodontist? I am not a candidate for veneers, Invisalign or lingual braces fixed cunningly to the back of my teeth. I instead have to go the whole hog with proper full-on braces, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

But the good news? I can have transparent ceramic braces on my top teeth so I won’t be as much of a metal-mouth as I feared. Also – and this is the even better news – I won’t have to go the whole 2.5 years that is the average for a brace-wearer. Instead, I would only have to wear them for a glorious 15 months!

You have no idea how happy I am to hear that. Even now I’m doing a little happy dance.

In and out of surgery…

So that was how I ended up a couple of months down the track, in scrubs and little plastic booties, shuffling behind Peter, the nice, friendly anaesthetic nurse dude, into a… whoa, a massive, bright surgery room filled with lots of other nurses in scrubs doing important-looking things with important-looking machines.

Everyone smiles and says hi. I smile and say hi back, trying to appear nonchalant. Like, gee, I go through surgery every day. No biggie.

Peter lowers the operating bed thing and I hop on, lie back and catch a glimpse of the massive bright surgery light overhead. And that’s when I begin to panic. Oh God, I think. This is just like something out of ER or Grey’s Anatomy. And it hits me – I am actually going into surgery. For the first time in my life. Undergoing general anaesthetic. What if I wake up midway through the op, paralysed and unable to move, but able to feel everything they’re doing to me, like Hayden Christensen in Awake?Why, why am I putting myself through this? I am as bad as those women who are addicted to plastic surgery, who undergo countless operations to achieve the perfect look, but instead end up looking more and more like Donald Duck every day. What am I thinking???

I had no more time to think because another nurse dude was inserting a needle into my left arm and Peter was placing an oxygen mask over my face, and just like that, I was out.

Chipmunk Face

A couple of hours later, I wake up to find that I’m still wearing the oxygen mask. I am extremely groggy, my face is as swollen as a chipmunk and I can’t feel my jaw at all.

Two nurses are there by my side. I can’t remember their names, but I remember one of them has braces. I remember telling her, pre-op, that I am getting my teeth extracted so I can have braces too. “They’re kind of a trend around here,” she chuckles. The nurses are extremely kind. They help me sit up and remove the oxygen mask and the tube from my throat because I am getting seriously fidgety. One of the nurses gives me a cup of juice. I can barely get it down, but she says I will have to drink the lot if I want to get the saline drip out of my other arm.

As I sip the juice, Peter comes in. He asks me how I am, then starts chatting with one of the nurses. He tells her about his weekend, where he apparently got to witness cadavers being cut up. It sounds interesting. I wish I am not so groggy and my mouth not so numb so I can take a further interest in what he has to say, maybe ask him a thing or two about cadavers. But I am feeling much like a cadaver myself at the moment.

Once I’m finished with the juice, they take me into the lounge. Teen Mums is on, but for once, I’m not interested in watching that. My head is too achy and I’m too groggy to do anything but close my eyes and pray for sleep to take over again.

My sister arrives to take me home. “You look terrible,” she observes as she sits down in the recliner next to mine. Usually, I am the healthy sibling and she is the sickly one. Our roles are reversed and I’m not enjoying this one bit.

“Gnrhgehre,” was all I could say. All I want to do is go home. Or die. Whichever is faster.

We go home.

The moment we get home, I pass out in my bed.

I won’t bore you with the details of the next couple of days. There were bad times – spitting blood into the sink, waiting for Chipmunk Face to go down, feeling groggy and yet terribly fidgety (is this part of the process of the anaesthetic wearing off? Or is it just me who is as fidgety as a toddler on a sugar high?), head constantly aching, mouth still numb and heavy. I keep waking, answering texts from friends (and telling everyone to never, never go for an unnecessary operation, ever) and ruing the day I decided to get braces. How I will get through the next 15 months, I don’t know.

***

Today I am much better. I can still only drink soup through a straw. I am still not used to the gaps in my teeth (though, happily, the gaps aren’t visible when I talk or smile, as long as I don’t smile too widely or suddenly swing my head from side to side). I suspect I’m unconsciously chewing the sides of my mouth and hope this is not the case – the last thing I need, on top of the braces and the teeth gaps, is to have the inside of a mouth like that of an ecstasy raver’s. But things are getting better. For example, I was talking to a girl today about my surgery.

“I’ve had braces too,” she tells me. “Don’t worry, it’s definitely worth it! Did you get your wisdom teeth extracted too? That’s good. I hear that wisdom teeth extraction is the worst. Getting your braces on will be like nothing for you after this.”

I pray she is right and there is nothing worse ahead of me that could compare to the horror of having eight teeth extracted under general anaesthetic.

Two nights earlier:

I lie in bed, watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes on DVD. My head is still achy so every now and then I have to look away, maybe flip through a magazine while listening to James Franco soothe John Lithgow and a few apes down, then come back to the screen. I glance up occasionally from my bed at the mirror on the wall to check on the swelling. I text my boyfriend, saying, “Guess what! Maybe I am imagining things or maybe it’s because I had Chipmunk Face earlier or have been staring too long at apes, but I think my face is definitely looking way better!!!”

I think it was the apes, because I wake up the next morning, still looking slightly swollen. The swelling continues to go down and sensation returns to my jaw, which kind of means that I now feel like a grandmother with really bad dentures.

Addiction to perfection

Five or six months earlier, I’m sitting in my car with my friend, L, and we are talking about my decision to get braces. “I’m not a plastic surgery kind of girl,” I tell L. “Once I’ve got my braces, I’m done! This is about as good as I’m going to look and that’s it. This is what I’m going to be happy with.”

“I guess so,” she says thoughtfully. “Though I’ve always liked the idea of getting my nose done if I had the money…”

I look at L’s nose in surprise because I’ve never noticed anything wrong with it. In fact, I’d much rather have her nose than the big honk that I’ve got on my face. To my horror, I start thinking about nose jobs and maybe a job to fix that jaw of mine and that profile…

That lasted for about one-tenth of a second. I’m not seriously considering this. I meant it when I told L that I’m not a plastic surgery kind of girl. First of all, the pain doesn’t appeal to me, nor does the cost. Second of all, I once read an article by a former Hugh Hefner Girlfriend/Playboy Bunny on how all the Girlfriends of the House (this was just right before the Kendra-Holly-Bridget-trio days and Hugh had more than just three live-in girlfriends) have had some kind of plastic surgery done and what they’ve found is nothing improves your appearance as much as really well-applied make up. Not even plastic surgery. And third of all, no matter how much I don’t like my nose or my jaw or whatever, it’s still me. That’s me there. If I changed it, I wouldn’t be me, even if I changed it to a ‘perfect’ version of me. If that makes sense. So no, no plastic surgery for me. Like I said to L, I’m just going to get these braces. And then I’m done.

Laptop breaks down

Last night: my laptop breaks down on me. I am pretty much on top of what’s happened. I know all I need to do is take my laptop apart and screw the loose power jack back into place. I borrow my brother-in-law’s screwdrivers without his permission and proceed to take my laptop apart, following the instructions of an IT technician taking apart a laptop on Vimeo, and feeling like a little kid who’s about to break a very expensive toy at the same time. I congratulate myself on succeeding in prying off the keyboard of my laptop. Then I am confounded by the ribbon cable.

For all his helpfulness, Mr IT Expert on Vimeo doesn’t really explain how to take the ribbon cable off without damaging my laptop. I watch the rest of the video to find that I need more screws if I am to repair my power jack. I admit defeat and put my laptop back together again. But I feel a new sense of empowerment because I now know how to take my laptop apart and put it back together again (while losing only one screw in the process), but also because I now know that I can handle screwdrivers. So I am not all that helplessly female. Even if I have to go to the IT tech shop tomorrow and let them rip me off by outrageously overcharging me for the simple task of fixing one loose power jack.

But for the moment, I feel lost and bored without my laptop. My jaw aches, and so does the rest of my head. Essentially, what I am is I’m feeling sorry for myself.

I clean out some of my drawers. I toss out a lot of grubby old make-up, fold up some old sheets and towels to take to the local pet shelter. I flip through some old magazines that I am about to give to a friend whose child’s day care centre can make use of for papier-mâché (side note: papier-mâché is French for chewed paper, which coincidentally is what my mouth feels like right now. Second side note: these days, you can’t just give old magazines away to waiting rooms. They already have all the latest issues.)

And this is what I read, sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by piles of old magazines, towels and sheets: I read an interview with Ingrid Betancourt, the French politician and activist who was kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas and held hostage for six and a half years before finally being rescued in 2008. I read about her courage and her strength while in captivity, her refusal to let her captors make an animal out of her. Then I read a 2011 Vogue article by Lauren Manning, titled A Will to Live. It recounts Manning’s journey back to health after being literally engulfed in flames in the lobby of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. I read about her recovery, the skin grafts and operations and the excruciating rehabilitation she undergoes to recover from burns to more than 82% of her body, her incredible strength and her will to survive. And I feel very small and very silly for worrying about one tiny little operation that I willingly underwent in order to have a straight smile.

In time, the soreness will go away. And my orthodontist will fix my braces on me. The gaps between my teeth will gradually vanish. And I’ll be Metal Mouth Girl for 15 months. But metal mouth or no metal mouth, sore face or no sore face, I’ll be smiling with those braces on me. Because there are people out there in this world going through far worse things than I am, ordeals in which they didn’t get a choice to say yes or no to, and for much bigger reasons than the outcome of ‘a perfect smile.’

Guess what? There is no such thing as the perfect smile.

Today, I walked past a shop window featuring a floor-to-ceiling poster of a swimsuit-clad model clad. Her face is thrown up towards the sky, she is laughing, her gap front teeth protruding. Some might say her teeth is, in the words of my ex, “f***ed up and needs fixing.” But to me, she looks gorgeous; her smile looks perfect and dazzling.

My orthodontist informed me at the very beginning that I will never have the perfect smile, not at this age. The best he can do is correct the teeth-crowding and the overbite. (Or underbite. I forget which it is. All I know is that it needs fixing). He tells me that he can’t give me a better profile either.

I don’t think I’ve ever told him that I’ve never liked my profile. I think it must be something that his discerning professional eye has picked up on, that the honest fact of the matter is that I just have a pretty bad profile, like squashed plasticine. Or maybe – and this is also highly likely – most people who come to him in search of braces have never liked their profile either.

“So,” my orthodontist continues, gesturing to the mould of my teeth sitting on the desk between us, “I can fix this and this and this. But it’s also my professional duty to let you know that these braces won’t give you a fully perfect smile, nor can I fix your profile. You’ll have to undergo jaw surgery for that, and that might be a little full on for you at the moment.”

“Na,” I say firmly. I didn’t even have to think about it; I knew what my answer was going to be right from the start. “That’s fine. No surgery for me. I’m just happy to have the braces done.”

And that’s the honest truth of it. Just the braces. That’s all. Soon, in a matter of weeks, they’ll be coming on. Soon, in a matter of months, they’ll be off. I know I won’t regret it, that I’ve made the right decision. I know I am going to love my new smile, that 15, 16 months down the track, the pain will be a distant memory and I’ll be saying, “Oh, yeah, it was totally worth it.” I know that if anyone else told me they were contemplating getting braces, I’d totally be rooting for them too because I know what it feels like to long for the perfect smile.

But I also know that with or without braces, I would have still been happy anyway. That my friends and family wouldn’t have cared if my teeth were that bit wonky, they’d just be glad that I was smiling. And that’s what really matters.

And I know that I will never, ever undergo another ‘unnecessary’ operation ever again.

Stay tuned for more Metal Mouth Diaries!

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