The Last Vestiges of Self-Harm
This is one person's story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.
By Clare Harmon, a former Emily Program client and woman in recovery
Confession: Until a few weeks ago, I hadn't had my teeth cleaned in over ten years.
Like many people, my fear of the dentist was cemented at an early age (this comes to mind). The dentist's office terrified: a noxiously lighted chamber in which the slightest transgression (you only floss twice a day and not after every meal?!) met the harshest punishment. I hated it. I hated the small talk, the smug dentist and his lackey, the self-satisfied hygienist. I hated the power trips and the authority and the "we know what's best for your body" rhetoric. When I left for college, I artfully dodged my bi-yearly check-ups. On several occasions, I actually reorganized gig schedules to conflict with appointments made months in advance.
The situation only worsened when I moved to Michigan for graduate school. In my second semester at Michigan State, I suffered a tremendous bike accident and knocked out two and seriously damaged two more of my teeth. At that time, a very kind, very gentle ER doctor removed the bone fragments from the roof of my mouth and referred me to an oral surgeon for numerous maxillofacial procedures. When I left the ER, the receptionist was sure to tell me, "try not to look in the mirror for a while."
I heeded her advice to the extreme. Since that day, I have actively avoided looking at my teeth. My smiles have been consciously close-lipped and I have developed a habit of mumbling in an effort to reduce dental visibility.
Further, as my eating disorder colonized more and more of my life, I started to feel like I didn't deserve to go to the dentist, I didn't deserve to follow-up on and keep healthy the implants that replaced the aforestated sidewalk-shattered incisors. I didn't deserve to take care of myself. I started to use my fear of the dentist as a cover-up for my self-destructive desires. I started to think, what is the point of going to the dentist, I'll never live long enough for it to matter.
Fast forward to this just-passed summer. I spent several days in bed at the mercy of an impacted wisdom tooth. The pain was debilitating and untouchable. I remember clearly a moment—huddled in bed, a bag of frozen strawberries melting on my face—when I mumbled "I can't do this any more." That afternoon, I found a sliding-scale dentist's office, one numerously cited for compassion in cases like mine. I scheduled an appointment and told my support network about it. I knew that I needed accountability: I needed to know that my friends would give me hell if I conveniently skipped my appointment, scheduled a gig, or "forgot."
A week after I scheduled the appointment, I found myself weeping in the dentist's waiting room. It was as if ten years of anxiety poured in torrents as I catalogued every irrational fear: I'm going to lose all my teeth, I have oral cancer, there is nothing to be done besides wait for each tooth to gray and fall out one by one. The list went on until the receptionist interrupted my tear-stained reverie in full New Orleans accent: "Girl, why you cryin?! We'll take good care. You got nothing to worry about."
In the hour that followed, the rest of the staff made good on her promise. There was no shame, only pragmatism and kindness. After the appointment, I was given a treatment plan (one that did not involve waiting for every tooth to die) and several additional appointments. "Girl, why you cryin?!" I said to myself as I walked to my car.
It's a question I continue to ask—why was this little appointment such a big deal? Girl, why you cryin?! I finally concluded that my teeth were symbols of an old life, or rather, an old way of living. The self-loathing that fueled my eating disorder. The internal voice that said "you don't deserve to be well." Worst of all, that fatalist lie: you'll never live long enough for it to matter. To confront my (admittedly irrational) fears of the dentist was to eradicate the last vestiges of self-harm. Girl, why you cryin? Joy in the face of my recovery, grief for the person I once was, relief for the person I am today, and pride at the final exorcism of this remaining dormant demon.
A little about Clare: She is the author of two books of poetry, The Thingbody (Instar Books, 2015) and If Wishes Were Horses the Poor Would Ride (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming 2016). For more posts from Clare: