I detest going to the dentist.
Unfortunately, after three years of glorious avoidance, my parents recently made an appointment for me and demanded my attendance. I tried to conjure up a list of excuses to justify my absence — I could very possibly be sick that day, my alarm clock doesn’t work that early, Sunday is the day of rest, etc. — but to no avail. My parents wouldn’t budge, and I was pretty sure I had a cavity anyways.
The premise of dentistry has always filled me with dread for a myriad of very good reasons. First of all, I do not enjoy laying on my back while several people peer into my gaping mouth. Secondly, the lights are always way too bright. Thirdly, it is absolutely humiliating attempting to engage in polite small talk as someone stabs your teeth with too many sharp tools.
However, I didn’t really have much choice in the matter, so at 7 a.m. I awoke and miserably dragged myself to the hellish office. After a long hour of unpleasant poking and prodding, my suffering was over. A flood of relief rushed through me, and I was feeling quite proud of myself, considering I only cried slightly.
As I began to leave, my dentist decided to chastise me. He knew from the sight of my gory gums that I did not floss.
“You really should floss, you know,” he sternly informed me. Yes, I did know. But no, I did not care.
I decided to add his advice to the long list of things I plan on never thinking about again — right next to all of the exams I’ve crammed for and the entirety of eighth grade. However, right before burying his advice far, far away into the dark crevices of my mental fortress, I thought about why I so immediately opted to disregard this nugget of guidance.
Flossing is easy. It requires very little time, and prevents inflammation. Floss is an inexpensive, widely accessible product. Why then, I asked myself, did I decide it was a practice I’d rather not bother with?
The truth is, I didn’t feel like I deserved to have clean, healthy gums. I truly believed I was doomed to have irritated, bloody gums for the rest of my life. I felt even the most basic self-care regimen was above me. I had avoided the dentist for years because I did not want to confront my own negligence. After a moment of processing this harsh epiphany, I decided that my years of insufficient dental hygiene had to end. It was time to floss.
Standing in front of my bathroom mirror, I gazed at my worn out face. I noticed the dark purple encircling my beady eyes, the faint creases beginning to form on my forehead and my four crooked teeth on the bottom row. I did not view these flaws as symptoms of ugliness, but rather side effects of a long history of low self-esteem. I did not prioritize sleep. I did not apply sunscreen. I did not wear my retainer. But when reflecting upon my appearance, I took the approach of compassion rather than critique. While I knew I could not undo the physical manifestations of perpetual indifference towards my own wellbeing, I decided to demonstrate that I care. I weaved that long, minty string through my crooked bottom teeth.
I very intentionally established a goal for myself— each of my mornings would henceforth entail a flossing session. As weeks elapsed and plaque subsided, I started to trust myself a tad more. I proved to myself that I had the ability to sift through life’s difficulties while maintaining a productive habit. After I had conquered flossing, I realized there were so many other aspects of my life that I felt empowered to improve.
For so long, I had felt transfixed within the liminal space between life and merely existing. Piles of clothes made their home on my floor, crumpled up papers and trash littered my backpack and my unbrushed hair morphed into large, unmanageable knots. While I felt ashamed, I did not feel like I had the energy to pull myself away from the gravitational pull of my own destructive tendencies.
As I incorporated flossing, however, I finally viewed change as a tangible possibility. Brushing my hair didn’t seem too difficult, and I made a much more active attempt at prioritizing organization. I had previously devoted hours to laying in my bed, staring at the wall and doing nothing. I am not going to claim I don’t do that at all anymore, but I now supplement my wall-staring with long-distance running. I opted to start adding creamer to my coffee instead of drinking it black because I figured I at least deserve a chance at happiness.
There are mornings when I’m rushed and don’t have time to floss. I don’t beat myself over it because I know that when I floss the next day, my gums will still not bleed. Not all progress has been lost.
Recently, somebody casually complimented my smile. I assumed it was because my teeth are slightly whiter due to flossing, or because my gums didn’t appear inflamed. But it could also be because now I smile a bit wider.