My Third-World Mouth


By the time I had dental insurance, a little money saved for non-emergency medical care, and a stain on my teeth that upset me enough to do something about it, I was 23 and living in Washington, D.C. I found a dentist just up the street from my K Street nonprofit, booked an appointment and acted like it was any other medical check-up when I went. When I sat in the big chair for the hygienist, she asked me how long it had been since I’d been to a dentist. “Never,” I said, “this is my first time.”

She cocked back and opened her eyes wide. “Were you raised in a third world country?” she flapped. If I hadn’t been at a low point in my Texan pride, if I hadn’t gone to D.C. in part to escape the increasingly regressive politics here, if I hadn’t been so focused on how I wasn’t measuring up to the D.C. lifestyle and my entire life up to that point was the problem, I might have been offended on behalf of my home state. Of course, there was an even deeper pride that managed to mutter an appropriate response…

“Couldn’t afford it.” And with that, I allowed it to be implied that the American working class, or at least my portion of it, constituted a third-world country.

Prove me wrong?

I mean, I can do the research as well as anybody, but there’s also something to be said of experience; there were a lot more perfect teeth in at college and where I was working in D.C. than there had been on the eastside of Fort Worth. My mom didn’t get dental coverage until I was well into my teens, and by then we just weren’t into the habit. In fact, even today, I’m pretty sure my mom’s still using a bridge that is older than I am.

After the hygienist finished insulting me, she was surprised to find that my teeth were in remarkable shape. They were crooked, they needed a good cleaning, and I definitely shouldn’t have been flossing more, but after 23 years, I had nary a cavity. Not even one. (Guess all that dental instruction in elementary school did help.) Since I’d fallen so far behind and did have something to learn (oh, so the brush is supposed to get at the gums, not avoid them…), I got the regular check-ups for the remainder of my D.C. career.

I never feared dentists, like you hear so much about. I don’t particularly enjoy getting drilled or scraped or any of that nonsense, but the expense and the bother were the only things worth justifying.
Six months after a rather rough cleaning, I came up with my first and second cavities. I had made it 23 years, but 18 months and some aggressive cleanings later, there they were. Maybe it was just my working class suspicion of anything that seems remotely luxurious (by which I mean “optional”, something with which I’m sure most middle- and upper-class Americans would still take issue), but I had no restraint in flippantly declaring that dentists cause cavities from that point on. I still don’t fear them, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I have trouble trusting them.

But who wants crooked teeth? They had kept me from modeling in college, you know (that and bad posture — chiropractors constitute a luxury, too, you know; you should see my brother’s spine after the number of car accidents he’s been in…). I only allowed the dentist to refer me to an orthodontist after he scared me with enough stories about cross-bite and how bad crooked teeth could be for long-term dental care. I couldn’t care less about having prettier teeth (as long as I was brushing regularly, they looked fine to me), but healthier… well, it would save me more trips to the dentist down the road. So I did two and a half years on Invisalign, and most of my teeth are pretty now. I no longer have the cross-bite, but neither can I close my jaw all the way.

Orthodontic coverage in most dental plans stops at 18, so the fact that I had no children meant that I had ortho coverage in name only. I had to lean on family to pay for the rest, because while I had outstanding benefits, I was still just starting out salary-wise.

My wisdom teeth were late bloomers, arriving mostly around the same time as my braces. We worked around them with the Invisalign, but the orthodontist told me again and again I should have them out. They’re superfluous; they’ll get in the way; they might not grow in correctly. The pain was a little uncomfortable, but they grew in on their own (in their own sweet time). They were a little hard to reach with the brush, but I thought I did alright.

When I moved back to Texas, my income became much lower and more sporadic, and benefits non-existent. Since my teeth were doing much better, I skimped on adding dental to my expensive individual health plan. I finally got around to adding it again about four years later, and it’s still taken me months to make the time to go in.

Ugh, I don’t ever want to see those pictures of my wisdom teeth again. Turns out my brush really couldn’t reach them, and five years really was too long to go without a cleaning…

So this afternoon, they’re coming out, all four of them (although only two are problematic at the moment). The office manager convinced me this was the best way to go because I could save money on the anesthesia.

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