When I'd hear my classmates bragging about having checkups with no cavities I regarded this as a mystery, like how Egyptians made pyramids.
In the fifth grade my mother personally took on the school board when they wanted to remove chocolate milk from school lunches. The parent suggesting that change was a dentist and my mother told him cavities paid for his house. Because this was true, he had to agree with her, and the chocolate milk stayed.
By the sixth grade it was clear I needed braces. You could have stood across the street from me and made that call. I imagine my orthodontist took one look at my crooked rabbity teeth and saw his kid's college tuition. My two front teeth had to be filed down, five extra teeth needed pulling, and then my teeth went into braces jail for almost three years. The end result was me getting a very pretty smile that would get me compliments for decades to come.
Then I made some questionable choices. Once I went to college, I had no dental insurance and no one reminding me to make appointments. My dental visits were rare and since my teeth looked great, I forgot about them. I ate all the candy I wanted to, a dream I'd had since childhood, and also took up smoking, to impress a creepy guy. I used over the counter teeth whiteners so my teeth stayed white.
Then, after 25 years of smoking, I quit the habit. One year later, my teeth rebelled. It was almost like they missed the nicotine. That was when I started to make dentists happy again.
I had terrible tooth pain and made an appointment with a dentist I'd never seen before. Because of the pain, my speech was quite garbled, and the receptionist wrote down my name as "Mary Anderson." The day of my appointment this caused temporary confusion as my name is Amie Ryan. Still, we solved the puzzle and the receptionist said she could fix it and sent me in to see the dentist. He told me the pain was because I needed the tooth pulled. I asked him if he wanted to x-ray all of my teeth, to be sure the other ones were okay. "Why?" he asked, "If the others don't hurt, why x-ray them?" He gave me a referral to an oral surgeon and wrote me two prescriptions, one a pain med and one an antibiotic that said take every 8 hours. "Take this twice a day!" chirped his assistant. "Twice or three times?" I asked her. "Oh yeah..three times!" she corrected.
I was able to go to a grocery store pharmacy one block away. A sign on the wall said PHOTO I.D. REQUIRED FOR ALL PRESCRIPTIONS. That was when I noticed both of my prescriptions were for Mary Anderson. I feared this might cause a problem, since my photo I.D. said Amie Ryan, but when I told the pharmacist the name of my dentist he said Mary Anderson was close enough. For an antibiotic and for Vicodin.
I found a better dentist who took a full set of x-rays and was happy to tell me the other dental work I needed. I liked him, despite his tendency to say "whoops!" during procedures. I learned to ward off anxiety by imagining I was George Harrison, circa 1970, full beard, sitar in my hands. My dentist would say "whoops!" and I'd think: All things must pass. Using this technique I survived 11 visits in one year.
The oral surgeon was happy to meet me but by then two lower teeth needed removal. He explained that after pulling the teeth he'd rebuild the gums on each spot so they'd be ready for two dental implants, a fancy term for a fake tooth attached to a screw. He explained how he'd build up my gums using, and I quote, the "magic stuff in the jar." I suspected this stuff was from a deceased person and asked him "How does the magic stuff get INTO the jar?" and he said "It's from someone who didn't make it home that night."
I couldn't decide if his flair for comedy was a good sign or a bad one.
When I reacted badly to the idea of getting a dead person's donated material in my mouth he tried to make it better by saying my own system would immediately absorb it. In other words, if I freaked out, it would be impossible to remove this material. I was glad to learn I could opt for either horse or cow "magic stuff" and chose cow. If you think about it, steaks and hamburger are donated cow material too, and I've always been happy to absorb them.
Last month I had the oral surgery and he did the magic stuff. I know this because I accidentally woke up halfway through the procedure. In July he'll put two screws in my gums which will sit, Frankenstein like, for three months and then will get the two teeth installed onto them.
Anyway, this whole ordeal has been scary and expensive. By habit, I've rewarded myself with candy. It makes me happy and, as I've learned, it keeps dentists in business.
Amie Ryan is the author of Green Shoes Mean I Love You, Starfish On Thursday, and Marilyn: Loved By You, available at http://www.amieryan.com/