Seriously, I’ve spent the first five decades of my life ashamed of my teeth and doing everything I could to hide them. Last month, however, the braces that I had been wearing for nearly two and a half years came off. For the first time in my life my teeth look good. For the first time ever I can smile and not be embarrassed about how I look.
That is, I’d like to smile. It takes a concentrated effort. I’ve got about 50 years of practice forcing my upper lip down to cover the huge gap between my two front teeth. That gap and all the others in my chompers are gone. Smiling, especially in a way that shows off my upper teeth, it difficult. The muscles in my face are not trained to do that. In fact, to smile broadly enough requires me to squint so much I can barely see. Complicating matters is the retainer I must now wear. I am far from making peace with it. I’d rather make pieces of it, if you know what I mean.
Still, I am more than happy to have nice-looking teeth and to be free from the bonds of the stigma that goes with being gap-toothed. Trust me, it’s a pretty big stigma, at least it was for me. Whenever a cartoonist wants to draw someone stupid, they inevitably make them gap-toothed or bucktoothed. I felt that when people saw my teeth I automatically dropped a few I.Q. points in their mind. People have a tendency to stare at nonconformities and I wasn’t about to feed that unconscious habit.
This orthodontic journey began for me in the spring of 2014 when I was urgently summoned back to Colorado to see my mother in the hospital in what would eventually prove to be her deathbed. She had been sick and was experiencing complications from surgery. Although she could not speak with all the tubes and things stuck in her, she did get a good look at my teeth for the first time in years. They had grown worse with age and were tilting a little wonky.
With a concerned look on her face, she picked up her clipboard and wrote “Joe teeth?” I kind of brushed it off at the time, but it really hit me hard. A few weeks later after her funeral, my Dad said he had discussed it with Mom and he wanted to pay half the cost for me to get braces. Having had one child out of braces and one about to go in, I just couldn’t justify it. Somewhere up there, however, Mom must have been bending God’s ear. My wife switched employers and her new benefits included adult orthodontics. On top of that, our orthodontist, Dr. Lee Mahlmann, offers a family discount.
With all that going for me, I felt the time was right. So, that October, just a couple weeks after Colton received his braces, Dr. Mahlmann fitted me with mine. It was the beginning of a long and painful journey, but one I have never been more grateful to take. I lived with a lot of discomfort and more than a little bit of pain for two years and four months as the braces (aided by a frontal frenectomy) closed the gaps and twisted and straightened my teeth.
My teeth ached every day as they were torqued and squeezed into place. The inside of my lips felt like hamburger as they rubbed against the brackets. In the homestretch I had to use rubber bands to align my jaw. That was seriously not fun, but I persisted.
In the end there were some unintended side benefits and consequences from the process. My mouth is smaller and my face narrowed, which had a lot of people asking me if I lost weight. (Huge sigh, I wish!) While I don’t mind the smaller mouth, my tongue did not shrink, so it feels kind of swollen crammed into a tiny space. It must now share space with the retainers, which has me talking with a bit of a lisp at times.
Those inconveniences aside, I find that my confidence and self-worth are starting to climb. People look at me and treat me differently than they did before. It’s a subtle difference and hard to describe, but it’s there. It’s still too soon to tell what the overall impact of my orthodontic adventure will be but the preliminary results are very promising.
I owe thanks to a lot of people for helping me through this journey. Obviously my parents had a lot to do with it (though I might point out it was their genetics that necessitated it in the first place). My wife put up with a lot of my complaining and she adjusted our menus to provide softer foods for Colton and me to eat. My employers were generous with my time to make appointments. But my biggest thanks goes to Dr. Mahlmann and his wonderful staff. They set the standard for customer care. Everyone remembered my name, something of my story and they always expressed interest in me and the progress I was making. They are friendly and professional (and funny). Dr. Mahlmann accomplished what other dentists have told me could never be done short of reconstructive surgery. I wish I had done this 35 years ago. My life might be very different today.
Poor Colton, though. After years of planning to get out of braces first, he is still wearing his and will until May. Although it’s taking longer, it is making a remarkable difference. He is turning from a good-looking kid into a great-looking young man.
As his Dad, that gives me a lot to smile about. And when it comes to smiling, I’ve still got a lot to learn, but it is a fun learning curve to be sure.