September 14, 2012

“I Should Have Looked Like a Freak.” One Woman’s Transformation from Buck Teeth to Beautiful Smile.

I was embarrassed a lot when I was a kid. I don’t mean from puberty. No, it wasn’t that kind of massive molecular-level morphing you feel when body parts you didn’t know could smell suddenly do and quite pungently. No, this was a kind of awareness that came to me about the age of 8 or 9. I had lots of reasons to feel different given my parents were a good ten years older than the parents of my piers. And while they were both American-born, they behaved more like my ancient-seeming grandparents from Europe. No playing catch with dad, no baking with mom. Just lots of hand-me-downs from my sisters: seven and five years older than me.

When together, my parents and grandparents all spoke a language I didn’t need to break down word by word to understand. There was a lot of spittle and phlegm involved and a general air of secrecy surrounded these conversations. I could handle this kind of embarrassment. Everyone in America was an immigrant at some time, right? No this kind of embarrassment came from me. Or more specifically, from my mouth.

Too Many Teeth, Too Much Mascara
It was a routine dental check conducted by the L.A. City School District during 8th grade that first put the suggestion in my head that perhaps it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t bite food cleanly and efficiently the way other people could. I had to wrestle pieces into my mouth then masticate making me feel like Lucy, everyone’s favorite 3.2 million year-old Australopithecus. Knuckles feeling as though they were dragging on the floor, I always ended up taking bites far too large for comfort. This resulted not only in a feeling that I was inept at the most basic task of life, but also in constant digestive distress.

While my parents grudgingly took me to my first dental appointment to fill the five deep cavities the school dentist had written home about, the thought of spending thousands of dollars on orthodontia was beyond their grasp. My father, after all, had only a few teeth left in his mouth and my mother wore complete dentures. Teeth, let alone healthy, straight, attractive ones where just not on their agenda.

By the age of 20 I was taking very good care of my teeth so as not to repeat my first dental experience of having 5 cavities filled over a series of Saturday’s. My dentist at the time would repeat the same mantra to me at every cleaning: “You’re a beautiful girl. Too bad your teeth are going to fall out when your 50.”  It was after about my third visit to this dentist that I decided I’d had enough of being embarrassed about my inability to take a clean bite out of double-double cheeseburger and began to seek out orthodontists.

The first orthodontist I met with told me I should have looked like a freak because of the eight extra, unnecessary teeth in my mouth; like one of those people you see coming from half a block away because of their obscenely contorted faces. That wasn’t me. I didn’t have ugly teeth. I was a cute girl. He offered a “possible improvement in 3 to 5 years” but made no guarantees.

The second orthodontist I consulted wanted to have an orthognathic surgeon remove part of my jaw and with it those pesky eight extra teeth. He assured me that I’d only need to have my jaw wired shut for a few months and after that the orthodontia could begin.  Today, it's easier because you can look at websites of dentists like this dentist in Bellevue and what they may be able to do for someone in a similar situation, often with before and after pictures and detailed descriptions of various procedures.  For me, it was a constant game of getting hopes up with every consultation only to be disappointed.

The third orthodontist I conferred was different from the first two in that the others were two of the biggest names in orthodontia in Beverly Hills at the time and this guy, well, he had a perfectly decent office in West Los Angeles but nothing to write home or the ADA (American Dental Association) about. He agreed that I should have been grotesquely ugly but somehow I had lucked out and wasn’t. He also agreed with my regular dentist that yes, without the removal of those extra pearly whites and subsequent orthodontia I could look forward to far fewer teeth. I remember him saying, “I can’t promise you a perfect bite, but I can get you damned close in about 2 years. And don’t give me any crap about those behind-the-teeth braces. You’ve got the ‘tuffy’ of tough problems -- an open bite* - and we need the heavy artillery.”

(*An overbite, commonly known as buck teeth, is when the upper teeth extend far beyond the lower teeth making simultaneous contact with food difficult. An open bite, my plight, meant that both my upper and lower teeth extended outward kind of like two garage doors opening at once making simultaneous contact with food nearly impossible.)

Good Old Metal Mouth

Anyway, off to war my teeth went. Well really my whole mouth.

The process began with the removal of 8 teeth at once: four wisdom teeth and four bi-cuspids. While I was unconscious for the surgery, the following three days more than made up for that blessing with me sleeping sitting up with cotton rolls in my mouth to absorb any bleeding and essentially not eating anything. There was some sipping of juice and water, but no chewing took place.

Almost as soon as I had recovered from the oral surgery, the orthodontia began. First the lower than the upper braces were attached. Wires were strung in between the posts which were glued to my teeth and like a medieval torturer, my orthodontist began the  tightening. Once a week for 20 months, I would dutifully report to his office and watch school-age kids leap out of the chair seemingly unscathed. Meanwhile, my mouth, my jaw, neck and my head would ache pretty much until about the day before my next visit. Oh yeah, and I had to wear head gear to speed the process. This consisted of a cranial cap held together by thin metal wires which connected to a few of the truly nuclear prongs in my mouth. Think of a horse bit with lipgloss and you’ve got a pretty good picture.

Because my mouth and every part of my body remotely connected to my mouth were constantly in pain from being tinkered with like an erector set, food was not a big part of my life during those 20 months. I lost at least 15 pounds and as long as I didn’t smile, I looked great. I remember driving one night and being stopped at a light in my little red VW Karmann Ghia when this handsome guy pulled up alongside me and smiled at me. Forgetting that I could deflect the rays of the sun, I smiled back. The look on his face was part revulsion part abject confusion. I think he left rubber behind when he hit the accelerator.

When one day I arrived at my orthodontist for my weekly torture session and he announced that I “was done” I couldn’t quite believe it. It took only minutes to remove the wires and posts and glue from my teeth and I was able to slide my tongue over my teeth without cutting myself; something I’d be doing regularly for almost 2 years with the taste of blood becoming as familiar as I imagined it would be to a vampire. (My grandmother was, after all, from Romania.)

20 Months, 24 Perfect Teeth

When I left his office sans my full metal jacket, I actually ran down the street just to burn off some of the joy I felt. While I no longer feel the urge to run down the street because I can masterfully manage even a triple-decker sandwich without embarrassment or resulting stomach discomfort, I view having orthodontia as one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done, emotionally and physically. I was a cute girl with a big smile, not grotesque teeth, but I made myself somewhat grotesque with my braces. I look back and I realize it was a very courageous thing for me to have done at the time.   I can finally look at teeth and beauty blogs without feeling defeated.Karen Boyarsky Bio Pic  Compared to what I went through today’s orthodontia is a cake walk. Even if there weren’t invisible, removable braces available, if I had to do it again, I’d definitely bite.

Karen Boyarsky is a freelance blogger writing for medical blogs. You can follow her on Twitter @Boyarsky_Karen.

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