Sometimes curious people ask: “Did you mess up your teeth?” They look closely at my mouth for signs. “Yeah, I did,” I reply, pulling open my top lip to show them the bridge in the way back.
This past December I was constantly reminded of how I damaged my teeth because I needed another root canal. I was so terrified of reliving my experience when I was 16, that I put it off until the pain was too unbearable to go on, even with 10 Advil a day. I stood next to the dentist’s chair trying to come up with ways out of it: “Can we just pull the tooth?” “Is there a chance it will heal?” (I’d already finished 2 rounds of antibiotics) “Have you ever done a root canal only to lose the tooth after it’s done?” I asked the last question because that’s what happened to me when I was 16. It’s why I had a bridge attached to my back top molars. It fills the space where the tooth I lost once stood and attaches to the next one toward the front. That bridge needed to be replaced, and when my dentist took it off, the back molar had a cavity, which rapidly turned into a root canal.
Let’s go back.
I was 16 and I must have had bad pain in that now missing tooth. My parents didn’t have dental insurance, so they found an affordable dentist about 2 miles from my mother’s house in Brooklyn that I could walk to (or take a bus, but you know, walking 2 miles burns calories so…) Dr. Arguelles also gave us laughing gas. Even for a cleaning. We loved that.
Dr. Arguelles must have determined that I needed a root canal, but like my regular dentist now, didn’t perform them himself. I knew it was my fault. I was very diligent about brushing my teeth post-purge and usually only purged at home where I could, but I’d read every article ever written on my disorder and knew that my teeth were at risk. Still, I couldn’t stop throwing up. I imagined guards, like Invisalign, that I could use to protect my teeth, but there was no such thing. I had been trying to stop for at least a year, but I couldn’t abstain for more than a few days.
My parents signed me up for a root canal at NYU dental school, which was a large classroom-lab over looking the East River. I would meet my mother there after ballet once or twice a week. Each time a different student would have a go at the nerves in that tooth. “I’ve never seen this before,” was often said. “Especially in someone so young.” “The roots are calcified.” It was humiliating. There were four roots in that tooth, so the process took weeks. I don’t remember it being painful, (They burned something in my tooth I recall. There was smoke), but in between those sessions, I was left with a big hole in that tooth. I knew I shouldn’t purge with that hole there, that the acid would get inside my molar. I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. I smoked for years, but was able to quit cold turkey. I’ve dabbled in other drugs and never gotten addicted – this was different. I was completely at the mercy of my disorder. About 4 weeks in, I took a bite of celery (which is ironic – I must have been trying hard that day not to binge) and the tooth just broke in half. I had to go downstairs and show my mother, who had wasted all those nights schelpping me to NYU. It was mortifying. All of it.
Dr. Arguelles yanked what was left of that tooth. The molars on either side had to be ground down to fit the bridge, so three teeth would never be the same, but my secret was hidden. Until last December when my new dentist convinced me to get the bridge replaced.
Just like when I was 16, insurance came into play. I had used my allotted annual amount on the new bridge, which wouldn’t work if I didn’t save the tooth. If I could wait till 2017, I would save over $800. “How much to pull the tooth?” I asked several times, but then I would be missing two teeth. I could get implants, but they are very expensive and involve bone grafts and more dentist visits, none of which include laughing gas; all of which give me real anxiety, terror and shame and embarrassment that’s been hidden under that bridge since I was 16.
Finally the dentist insisted I have a root canal. So I drove to the office, but when I got there I was paralyzed even though my tooth had been screaming for four weeks. I was in severe pain, but I was too terrified to get into that awful chair. Because I had let it go so long, the procedure couldn’t be completed in one visit – it already seemed like the same spiral I was in as a teen, even though this time my tooth would be properly filled and stabilized by the temporary bridge. Plus, I haven’t purged since I was 19. It was totally different, but I couldn’t move. About twenty minutes into my standoff with the root canal specialist, my regular dentist pretty much shoved me into the chair. He said: “You have been in too much pain for too long. I can’t watch this anymore. We will work out the insurance later.” Within seconds, I was getting shot up with Novocaine. “Wow, you’re tough,” my dentist said as he injected the roof of my mouth with that giant needle. “I’ve been in much worse pain for a month. This is nothing,” I said.
The root canal doc then got to work even though I was literally shaking. I was terrified before he even started to drill. Really terrified. Which isn’t my thing. I mean, I’m not danger averse. Or afraid of pain. But it wasn’t the pain that scared me – it was something else all together. When my regular dentist returned and asked: “How are you doing?” I said with the rubber apparatus in my mouth: “I’ve decided to cooperate.” “That deserves a high five,” he said, which made me laugh.
The root canal was fine. It was over in 45 minutes. “Wow, I can see why you were in so much pain,” the root canal doc said. “The nerve is so inflamed, there is literally blood gushing out.” Strangely, that made me feel better, like I didn’t have a choice, because all of it still feels like my fault. It is really. It’s my fault I fucked up my teeth. I did this to myself. I’m costing us money that could go to the kids. (Even my husband argued – “If you’re in that much pain, you have to get it fixed.”) I was stalling. I kept remembering the moment the first tooth broke, how mortified I was, how scared, how guilty. (I still have nightmares about teeth falling out) It was just one tooth, but it meant so much more than that. The moment my tooth broke so many years ago, was the moment I knew I was screwed. I was out of control. Either I would get help or…. ? Ultimately, there was no other way out.
Thankfully, the specialist really was the best and there were no complications, no calcifications, and once the work started, no more tears. And today, I really have no pain. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t man-up when I needed to and that I forced my dentist to take on the role of a parent. (Though I didn’t mind when he called that night to check on me and admitted he has to force patients into the chair all the time. That made me feel better.)
I’m not sure who I’m writing for. If any bulimics are reading this, get help now – like I said, there is no other way out. I’m lucky I got help when I did. But my recent tooth episode was a painful reminder of that desperate time in my life. The new bridge may be smooth and pretty, but the truth beneath it isn’t.
If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association toll free and confidentially at 1-800-931-2237 or go to nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support for help.