Several years ago, I had a wisdom tooth extracted, though that clinical assessment does little to capture the lived experience. Properly stated, I was mugged by an oral surgeon who kicked me in the face, knocked one of my teeth out, and shook a few hundred dollars out of my pockets. Poor Tony, I invite you to croon along with me, as this tale of wisdom and woe I commence.
A sensitive tooth isn’t such an uncommon thing. They come and they go, nothing to raise the siren about.A sensitive tooth isn’t such an uncommon thing. They come and they go, nothing to raise the siren about, especially for someone like myself who—and I am something of a braggart on this detail—practices excellent oral hygiene. Maybe it was those animated Bod Squad public service announcements I remember from Saturday morning cartoons, but I’ve always been diligent in my flossing and brushing.
In any event, I never had my wisdom teeth removed because there never really seemed to be a need. But as I was soon to discover, wisdom teeth either serve an obsolete evolutionary purpose or humanity has grown much too tame. Prior to the domesticity of modernity, it seems, wisdom teeth didn’t present a problem because by the time in life when they would become a problem, a) you’d be dead, and so the issue would be necessarily moot, or b) you’d have lost a few teeth along the way already, and so your wisdom teeth could show up all handy and heroic. But here in the 21st century, wisdom teeth don’t do much except crowd the party, lurking in the darkest caverns of your mouth, and defying the most benevolent gestures of floss and bristle.
So yes, several years back I noticed one of my wisdom teeth had been growing sensitive, but I didn’t pay it much heed. In fact, for some idiotic reason I ignored it till it so corroded my mood that in a moment of clarity and howling sensitivity I finally realized that this is why I’d been having such a grumpy cantankerous week. I made an appointment with an oral surgeon for the next morning, suddenly determined to get rid of this annoying tooth and recover my typically gentle Libran mood – by then teetering on the event horizon of a black hole.
I’m right in the middle of contemplating the moral lesson of a Goofus and Gallant cartoon when in strides the oral surgeon flanked by two hygienists.So I’m sitting in the oral surgeon’s chair, happily reading Highlights (it was either that or People magazine in the waiting room…) as the right side of my face gradually grows numb. I’m right in the middle of contemplating the moral lesson of a Goofus and Gallant cartoon when in strides the oral surgeon flanked by two hygienists. “How we doing?” he asks, not waiting for me to answer that we doing fine before he commands my head back, glares the spotlight into my eyes, fishhooks his finger into my cheek, taps on my tooth and asks if I can feel anything. I gargle no, and despite his abrasive bedside manner, I’m in high spirits. After all, I’m about to solve all my problems and regain my composure in life, and sure enough, within a minute he’s wrenched that tooth right out of my skull. He was even kind enough to snap the crown of the tooth off first before drilling a hole into the roots to plug them out as well.
“Cripes,” I said as I sat up. “That was traumatic.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty invasive,” he chuckled, snapping his rubber gloves off and exiting the room. The hygienists were more consoling, leading me to a private room with a La-Z-Boy recliner where I think I was supposed to sit down and weep. They gave me some gauze, a prescription for some Vicodin, and a little pamphlet filled with information about what to eat and how to chew on the other side of my mouth and cautioning me not to smoke or spit or suck through a straw for a few days. It sounded easy enough.
As it turns out, the body doesn’t take kindly to having shards of itself cracked asunder.But as it turns out, the body doesn’t take kindly to having shards of itself cracked asunder, and my jaw began to make the vastness of its displeasure known as the Novacaine wore off. I’m not a huge fan of opiates, but the Vicodin was grand consolation. The problem was that two days later I felt like Jack Nicholson’s character after they lobotomized him in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Just sort of shuffling around slack-jawed, not feeling any pain, but not feeling any life either. I have a low tolerance for stupefaction, so I tossed the Vicodin. I’ve always been a fast healer, and it had been a couple of days, so I figured I would be more or less fine.
I wasn’t. I startled awake at 4:30 the next morning to some demon blacksmith hammering on an anvil right next to my head. When I sat up to demand what he was doing, his only response was to scream “How we doing?!” before driving a nail into the side of my jaw and cackling the mad maniacal. Stumbling downstairs, I fished the Vicodin out of the garbage, feeling vaguely like an out-of-work actor in an anti-drug commercial. By dawn, however, I was dismayed to discover that the Vicodin no longer offered any reprieve. My head now felt like some roid rageaholic named Frankie Violent’s punching bag. Actually, Frankie Violent had me by the ears and was crashing his knee into the side of my face, and all I could do was marvel at how perfectly timed the collision of his knee was to my pulse.
If my mood had been grouchy before the extraction, now I was seething darth and spitfire and ready to tear someone’s head off.Oh yes, and it was the weekend now, so I couldn’t call the oral surgeon. On top of that, I was hesitant to call upon any friends as long as Frankie Violent was kicking me in the head. If my mood had been grouchy before the extraction, now I was seething darth and spitfire and ready to tear someone’s head off. I felt like I’d just cold-turkeyed a triple espresso habit and discovered that my head was actually the dong of hell’s bell tolling permanent midnight in an Edgar Allen Poe story. Worsemore, Frankie Violent had jammed a funnel into my mouth and was force-feeding me black gobs of aggravation, frustration, impatience, bitterness, anger, and pretty much any negative emotion that I’ve ever heard of, all crashing an out-of-control, metal-slamming, anvil-clanging party of the damned inside my skull.
Desperate, I crawled over to my laptop and typed into the oracular interface that is the Internet: “wisdom tooth extraction complications.” Click, scan, click, scan. Self-diagnosis: alveolar osteitis, also known—delightfully—as dry socket. Apparently, the blood clot did not form properly, leaving my jawbone exposed to the air, which vexes the skull considerably, and which accounts for the “extremely unpleasant pain radiating up and down the head and neck.” Extremely unpleasant. That’s an exaggeration of understatement.
Trapped in this dark night of my soul, I found myself unbelievably irate as the vise continued to tighten around my skull. Kitchen ceramics and silverware made more noise than I ever remember, and when I walked outside and a leaf drifted in front of my face I had an urge to tear the poor vegetation to pieces. But I somehow made it to Monday morning and called the oral surgeon, and even managed to drive all the way to his office without ramming any of the slowpokes swarming around me, a Donald Duck screaming tantrum of road rage it might have been. I clicked on the radio for distraction. Oh my holy cow was the morning news annoying.
I’m certain that the Buddha never experienced dry socket, or if he did, it immediately preceded the serenity of his enlightenment.I’m certain that the Buddha never experienced dry socket, or if he did, it immediately preceded the serenity of his enlightenment. For when the hygienist gently tucked a clove oil dressing into my dry socket, it was as if the toxic dust from the hellfire blowout settled at last and the clear light of day shone once again into mine eyes have seen the glory. Oh my god blessings and bliss, I was reborn, redeemed, I tell you, and I gained a new appreciation for the ecstasy of mind that accompanies the lack of a vise tightening around one’s skull. What is more, having been force-fed that rotting smorgasbord of negative emotions so thickly, I also tasted just how astonishingly toxic they are. This goes more or less unnoticed when we permit ourselves to indulge them in thinner dilutions, but I testify before you now that I will snack upon them nevermore.
The next morning, after I had carefully placed the shattered pieces of my wisdom tooth under my pillow the night before, I found no cash. But I awoke to find my life grateful – not merely that I was no longer experiencing an unbearable pummeling of my skull, but also that in plumbing the depths of the dark side of the human psyche, I had exorcised all the little devils that slant the sunshine of life into murk and shadow. Unapologetic in their careening negativity, they can turn the dream of one’s life into a growling nightmare. When I left the house that glorious morning, the cars around me were no longer swarming slowpokes, but chariots for the shining souls within, unlimited potential as life unregarded we rev about our day, fleeing the same loneliness and seeking the same communion, fearing to share, daring to trust, struggling, surrendering, giving up, and giving in, to love.
Take care of yourself, and take care of those around you,