Ijeoma Oluo wrote an article on what it’s like being poor with bad teeth for THE ESTABLISHMENT (seriously, you gotta check that blog out. It’s amazing!), and it hit me in all of the feels and directly into my mouth.
It’s kinda bullshit how dental care is treated almost like a cosmetic necessity. Like, you want good looking teeth just because you want good looking teeth. Never mind that gum disease and plague and shit can fuck up the rest of you, and getting that shit fixed costs a pretty penny, nope, you can just live with poor sick teeth if you can’t afford it or insurance, or if your insurance won’t cover any of it. Just get used to eating soft foods and barely opening your mouth for the rest of your days. Just get used to being judged by everyone, and having opportunities locked away from you, because your smile sucks.
Now, for me, I have really awesome teeth. My smile is the fucking bomb, see?
…my smile also comes out at night, hates seedy fruits, and tends to try to escape if I wear them for more than a day. It also tends to stay out during the day if I’m at home. I got these suckers at 32, ending a decades long saga of what it’s like to be poor with sick teeth and unable to do jackshit about it.
Growing up, I was never really happy with my smile (having your father inform you that you didn’t know how while looking at a school picture will sometimes do that to a kid). I was less happy with the constant comments about my breath. It was bad. No matter how often I brushed my teeth and tongue, used toothpaste or baking soda and water, or scraped my tongue, the halitosis wasn’t going anywhere. Talk about making basic communication difficult when you’re already a tiny ball of anxiety before your first decade on this planet.
I remember going to a dentist exactly once. My breath wasn’t addressed, to my knowledge.
As time moved on, my teeth started…moving. I had to be careful with what how I ate. Then biting into something was impossible. Then there were foods that were just delicious bunches of NOPE – apples, ice cream, corn on the cob, so on. There was blood every single time I brushed. I started college with the gums of my front bottom teeth pulling back. I lost a tooth around 23 and just had to throw it away. I could tell from the near lack of a root that even if I could afford help, it would be for naught.
At 25, working at a job with health benes, I had to have another tooth pulled because it had abscessed. And that’s when I first even heard of the words “Periodontitis” and “Juvenile Gingivitis”.
The breath, the sore gums, the bloody brushings? I was brewing up a mass of bacteria in my gums and they were destroying my teeth from the inside. The bottom front ones were going to be the first to go, I knew it. They were not just pulled away from the gums, but were mobile. If I wasn’t careful eating, they would shift and hurt so damn much.
I was already scared, since that first lost tooth was close to the front, that people would see my increasingly toothless face and not hire me or hang out with me or fuck me or whatever.
We are pretty damn cruel to the toothless once all of the adult teeth are in. It’s like the wisdom teeth are the only socially acceptable ones you can talk about having removed. Missing a few teeth? What, are you on meth? Can’t bother brushing your teeth enough? What’s wrong with you?
Never mind that someone can do all of that, and be sitting in a dentist’s chair, staring back at dozens of their own teeth with their roots gone. No connection to the jaw bone at all. Shame never cured a single case of periodontitis, bee tee dubs.
I was in that dentist’s chair at 30-31, using government benes to try to salvage SOMETHING out of the mess. The bottom front ones were hopeless, had to go, replace them with a partial. Okay. A partial I could deal with. Lots of people my age and younger had those.
But the top teeth? All of them? Had to go. That was harder to deal with.
I’ll spare you the comedy of errors that followed, having to go to the hospital to have the tops removed because I’d hit the limit of numb-numb shots my dentist could give me (dentist called in a favor to an ex, since I was scheduled to leave for Minneapolis the end of the month). There were a first set of teeth that I called, with no affection at all, Horse Teeth, that made me gag every time I talked. I wrestled with the state insurance in MN over getting a better bottom partial as well as top teeth I could talk with.
And that’s when they told me that no, everything had to go. There would be no fight to save the ones still attached to my headbones. It wasn’t allowed, not with my insurance.
I remember curling up in one of the quiet rooms at my former job and bawling my eyes out. Dentures? A full set? But I was only 31!!
I had already been walking around in my new town with nothing in my face (because Horse Teeth were just not fucking working out at all and I had to leave the damn house to try to find work). I feel so ugly, so low, so disgusting. Would you hire someone with only her back teeth left? You don’t have to answer that, most companies wouldn’t bother. I hate to imagine having to be someone who didn’t have dentures to look forward to soon.
So, finally, I was knocked out (seriously, after the above comedy of errors, the thought of a needle big enough that I could see the hole going towards my face made me freak out that bad), had the remainder removed, spent months on an Ensure and yogurt and chicken soup diet – to this day I can’t look at an Ensure ad without getting a touch queasy, had a couple of fittings and then…..
I wish I could remember the date, maybe FB Memories with pop it up for me one day. But that day, I went to the dentist’s office, he showed me the new dentures, and then popped them into my mouth. His hygienist presented me with a mirror…and I smiled.
…then started crying. After years of all of the anxiety, the ugliness, the inability to care for myself, the inability for my family to care for younger me, the worry, the nightmares where all of them fall out during an interview, the constant breath mints and gargling with mouthwash because I was so scared to offend, and there I was. Smiling.
No gaps, no holes, all straight. That night, I ate a rib using my front teeth. I had a crouton, then several.
I wish I could say “and we all lived happily ever after”, but I can’t. No, I won’t. It’s bullshit that the poor are so maligned by things they have no power over, right now to our appearances. It’s bullshit that people like Ijeoma has to live with broken teeth until $20,000 falls into her lap. It’s bullshit that dental care costs so much that treatments that would actually fix a problem aren’t covered by basic insurance.
It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit, but I’m gonna let Ijeoma end this, because her words are awesome:
And this is where I am today—I have a full life with wonderful family and friends, a career that I love and truly believe is making a difference, a voice that carries, and a mouth that can’t open wide. Perhaps one day I’ll be privileged enough to be able to hand over $20,000 to try to make up for a lifetime of being treated like basic medical care was a luxury that I didn’t deserve. But in the meantime I, and so many other poor people across the country, will continue to try to get by in a world that judges our smiles.