The first weekend of May, we helped Katherine move; tired from the exertions of the day, we decided to treat ourselves to Thai food when we returned home. As usual, I ordered my favourite: yellow curry with chicken and coconut rice, and dived in.
I’d been feeling a little pain in the top corner of my mouth on and off again but nothing that worried me. But by Sunday night, the pain intensified a hundredfold, shooting all the way up into my temple as far as my eye. The dentist worked me in the next day and the diagnosis was simple—my one remaining wisdom tooth was wreaking havoc, exerting so much pressure that a pocket had opened up in the gum and gotten infected. And curry was like rubbing salt in a wound.
Every time I glanced at my reflection, I saw pain etched all around pinched eyes. The chiropractor and massage therapist had to work out knotted muscles halfway up my back to my temples. Somehow I got through my piano lessons—painful but a distraction, at least—but trying to read was like attempting to pour pudding through a straw.
A couple days in, when the antibiotics did their beautiful thing, I returned to a decent functioning level, and waited for my appointment with the surgeon. I’d heard all sorts of horror stories about wisdom teeth, which made me grateful I was only born with two, both on the top. Years ago, while my daughters were still young, one made an appearance and was easily removed—no cutting, no twisting, no problem. The other remained, doing nothing, just an image on an X-ray. I figured it would stay there for the rest of my life.
I’m not terribly nervous about most medical procedures but I was nervous about this one. The surgeon didn’t seem worried, telling me local anaesthetic would do just fine and I could drive myself. I’d have a consult and surgery and be on my way within an hour.
But I hadn’t counted on the surgical room. I have a pretty high pain tolerance but am particularly sensitive to environments—hot/cold, lighting, smells, sounds. I met with the surgeon in a normal-looking dentist room. After completing the financial arrangements, they escorted me to a room that reminded me more of the surgical space where I had my hysterectomy. It was large, with lots of stainless steel and all those dental tools spread in a row.
The chair was wide and comfortable, not at all like the cold, hard table in an operating room. But I felt my body tensing, my right hand shaking in my lap. Perhaps I’ve read too many murder mysteries with serial killers, but that was where my mind went. The surgeon and his assistant were lovely, joking about things and talking me through each step, so I have no complaints about them or any doubts about their competence. But I tend to be claustrophobic and as soon as they started pressing and working in that small space deep in the back of my mouth, I really struggled to stay calm.
It was fast. Consult to completion was under forty minutes, the tooth removal itself probably about ten. I walked to my car, consulted my map, and began driving away from downtown.
I’d thought the worst was over. Maybe it was the residual effects of those gloved hands working in my throat, or the room, or the thick ball of gauze in my mouth, but I couldn’t catch my breath. I’ve had bouts of anxiety before and lots of fear. But not panic attacks. As I drove, I was sure this was what was happening.
I could breathe. I could see. But the normal long breaths weren’t cutting it so I switched over to a rhythmic panting, three short inhales, one long exhale. Three short inhales, one long exhale. I made my way on to Memorial, going slow, sitting in traffic but still ahead of rush hour. I thought in terms of roads, one turn after another.
They say that in a moment of crisis, everything slows down. I don’t know if it’s true but it certainly feels that way to me when I’ve experienced things like a near head-on collision or the time Anna got her fingers shut in a screen door. A certain calmness comes over me and I know what to do. I knew I had enough oxygen; I knew if I didn’t, I had to pull over; I knew I had to take shorter breaths; I knew I had to drive slower.
By the time I reached Airport Road I was feeling a lot better; by Airdrie I was normal again. But I remained at a slower speed for quite some time afterward.
During Zoom church a few days later, a woman shared her ongoing strategy for staying sane and well during these times; this involved participating in regular practises that centered around remaining deeply connected to her body. I could relate. For too many years, I’ve been disconnected from my body, but I’ve been slowly changing that.
What happened to me in that surgical room and on the way home was a pure body reaction. It was telling me something that I just had to listen to. Perhaps if I’d verbalized my reaction more clearly to that room, they would have moved me; perhaps not. I wanted to be brave and soldier on, but I think my body fought that tooth removal by my very tenseness.
And it told me something again on the way home. To listen, to give it what it needed in terms of short breaths, to be willing to discard my desire to evade rush hour and just pull over if it came to that.
I don’t know how people manage having all four of these teeth pulled at the same time. Or why. After this experience, I am even more grateful that God saw fit to only give me two.