The Wisdom of Teeth

I closed the restroom door behind me softly, turning the lock with a shaky hand. The mirror reflected my ghostly white, tear-stained face, made slack on the right side by an over-abundance of Novocain. An over-abundance that had done nothing to quiet the searing pain every time the dentist attempted to pull the tooth. As I sobbed quietly, a realization came over me: You don’t have to suffer. You have nothing to prove by toughing it out. This decision to stick to the plan is only hurting you. You would not do this to your child, so why are you doing it to yourself?


It started out routine – a simple prep for a crown and was out of the office in under an hour. Two days later, my face swelled from eyebrow to throat, making it hard to talk. My check was tight and hot, and my mouth filled with oozing, bitter pus. Which, I can assure you, is even more disgusting in real life than it sounds.

An x-ray of my jaw showed a pocket of deterioration around a neighboring tooth. The dentist said it had been there a “long time” (months? a year?), and I needed the tooth pulled immediately.

And that was where the fun began.

Despite everything we did to try block the pain, my mouth would not go all the way numb. As he pulled gently on the tooth, trying to wiggle it out of place, my legs convulsed, and I shook uncontrollably. Tears ran from the corners of my eyes and pooled in my ears. I squeaked and groaned in pain. I breathed deeply and sometimes not at all. One assistant left to be replaced by another (more stoic?) woman. The dentist kept asking if I was ok, ready to stop any time. Knowing that relief could happen any second, I kept assuring him I wanted to continue. Until I didn’t any more.

The tooth was pulled by an oral surgeon under intravenous sedation two days later. He said I’d been lucky, and the erupting pus had “saved me”; it would take weeks to fully heal.

I slept for days, and it was a full week before I returned to work.

At the end of my first day back, I lost my job.

The three month trial period was over and they weren’t extending a permanent position to me, was all my boss said. My jaw throbbed as I argued that I was still training and hadn’t been able to do what I was hired for. I’d gotten a campaign set up and had executed a very successful online fundraiser. I hadn’t been alerted to any serious issues, and it wasn’t fair to not give me a chance to resolve problems. I told him I felt devastated, betrayed, lied to. I’d taken a risk, left a good job for this one, and he hadn’t given me a chance. I wanted to know why. He said nothing, his eyes blank and unfocused above his mask. I sobbed as I cleaned out my office.


Now, a few days later, my mouth is slowly healing. So is my heartache. But I also feel something else clearing out. I feel lighter. Not for a lack of worries about the future, that is for sure. I still haven’t done the math to figure out just how f-ed I am financially, but I know it’s bad. And yet…

I’ve spent most of the last 5 years trying to turn marketing skills acquired over 25 years in retail into a “real job” in the non-profit sector. One that would pay bills and let me go on vacation. One that would result in eventual partial student loan forgiveness. One that came with an office and a title and opportunities. But while I’ve learned a lot, I’ve been mostly unhappy. I stopped writing. I lost confidence. I grew small and increasingly depressed. My energy was sucked up by long hours, and I had nothing left to do the things that I loved like hiking, skiing and gardening.

Mostly, I was confused about why who I was seemed to be so utterly out of place in the non-profit world. I didn’t understand the rules. The way people communicated was foreign to me. The stated exceptions never seemed to be the actual expectations. There was insincerity, competition, and passive-aggressiveness at a level I couldn’t have imagined. There was a universal desire to be socially progressive but an unwillingness to share power, lift up others, and change the status quo dynamic in meaningful ways. I was so aware of the issues, I sought coaching thinking that maybe it was me that needed to change.

It wasn’t me.


Depending on which of the plethora of “dream interpretation” sites on Google you are looking at, teeth are about power, transformation, and communication. The irony of harboring a long-term, massive infection below my teeth during the time I most struggled with finding my “leadership groove” in the non-profit world isn’t lost on me. I was doing the right things to ensure success, but a big ol’ pocket of pus was lurking below the seemingly healthy surface. Like not being able to get a tooth numb enough to pull, sometimes the system doesn’t work the way it should.

If teeth are about power, then I’ve been in trouble since I left retail. I’ve never had such a run of years with major dental work. The metaphors are too on the nose, and all the ways and reasons I made myself stick it out are too numerous to go into. I am only sorry it has taken great pain for me to remember that there are other ways to do things. Suffering is not a requirement.

I don’t know what will come of all of this. My jaw still hurts, I am still tired. I still have to work to not spiral into a blackhole of wondering why I lost what I thought was my dream job. But…I am writing again. I rebooted some old ideas that brought out the best of me. I bought a new “going places” bag. And I weeded the garden and aired out the house – literally and figuratively.

I am looking forward to getting my new teeth.

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