Sunday, May 19, 2013

There's no such thing as a short answer to "What Happened?"

(Note: What follows below is from a recent email to my former student dentist, Rakhee. It felt like the most eloquent summary I have come up with recently to explain how I have been feeling in the wake of my broken foot and on the verge of completing my dental work that she began. I know that that story will not just magically have a happy ending the day my last crown is put on, but that it is still, every day, being written. Real heaing requires more than just new teeth, as I have been trying to unravel and understand all along. The deeper I continue to walk or crutch into my own darkness while alone these past few months, the more I feel the reasons for my broken foot are very similar to those that led to my broken smile. I hope that sharing my own journey with you all will continue to help you to make such a journey yourselves, and that together we can all be stronger, healthier people who listen to, learn from, and help one another to find the light at the end of our tunnels. I think I can finally say, that I am almost there.)

Hi Rakhee!
I have wanted to write to you forever. Everyone gets so wrapped up in short text communication sometimes I feel like it is impossible to really communicate full, elaborate thoughts anymore. Certainly for ME, but, you know how I write! :-)
I think sometimes I think if I ever were to write a book, all the footnotes in it would be inside jokes for you or something. Like whenever I write a blog, it feels like there's still so much I didn't say, sometimes that you are one of the only people I feel would understand.
You and I may come from different worlds, and honestly I don't think either of us probably know what a day in the life of the other is really like, but I think one of those magical mysteries about life is how people can sometimes meet in the middle and transcend who they are and find common paths toward connections that can help lift each other up to new levels. Some of that might sound like hippie bullshit, but I still feel like this is the case for us, even if we so rarely chat and I haven't heard your voice in a year. You always cheer me up. You're like a magic knife that helps me to cut through my bullshit and depression some days to be more positive and productive and happy. I think some people might think I'm crazy or even "stalkery" or something for my tattoo, but the bottom line is, some of us just need more little "reminders" sometimes to get through our days, reminders even, to "smile." I have have all sorts of crazy up and down intense relationships in my life, with friends, family, girlfriends, whatever, but you are honestly one of the very few I can think of that my brain doesn't attach any negative feelings to. I can't think of you, truly let myself think of you and all we have been through together for a few minutes, and not smile. (Could you imagine if EVERYone could say that about their friends or family, let alone their DENTIST?) I hung a picture of us in my bathroom with some printed out things you've said that are helpful "affirmations" to me that I look at every time I feel lazy and don't want to brush my teeth. Maybe that is "crazy" to people who come over too, but it HELPS me.
I know that you read my blog, but we never really talked a lot about it, your hands were always in my mouth! Ha. Bottom line, there are reasons this happened to me. Everyone always asked me, student dentists included--drives me crazy--"what happened?" Like it is a simple answer. I have come to loathe that question. It's like a cashier asking "how are you?" and then getting confused or annoyed when you respond. LIFE happened! We all were dealt different hands and we all played them differently. I lost a bunch of hands. I'm finally trying to start WINNING. That's probably the best simple answer I could give!
What I'm getting at is, the most important realization I had about my teeth was that I let them get that way as a form of self-harm, hoping to get a reaction out of my parents and friends all those years. I didn't know how to be happy or healthy or fix anything, and that was the one thing I could control, always hoping someone would notice and help me deal with my teeth and the pain of my childhood that caused the problem. Every cavity was really like another time I was disappointed by those I just wanted love from. And you can fill those holes, but it doesn't mean that that disappointment won't still be lingering in there somewhere at the roots. Ha, did I just call my parents periodontal disease??
The past few years have been a whirlwind emotionally. My last relationship was confusing. I think honestly I am a few years ahead of her at learning how to face my fears and problems and be honest with myself and others and I think that was our downfall. So many people, more and more these days I am finding have no idea how to communicate, if they are even in touch with their real feelings at all. It's really tragic.
Even as "enlightened" as I still hide and deny things and push them aside when I don't feel I have the time to confront them. Honestly that is one of the reasons I bike and hike and camp so much, because nature helps me to focus and really commune with myself as well and process these things. Pain, confusion, whatever. I was really hurt the way things ended with after my break-up, I couldn't get the "closure" from her I'd wanted and I couldn't get the words out I wanted to say and I just felt "stuck." That affected a lot about my life in the months that followed.
The weekend of my accident it was originally a 4 day vacation I had planned for after when I was first told my dental work would be finished. That obviously, was CRAZY. Whenever that was really going to happen, I was saving my vacation days just to get away and be with myself and reflect on it all. That week like 900 dollars of my fancy hiking and biking clothes and gear got stolen off my bike and it kinda ruined my plans for a 4 day camping trip, which ultimately was also really to process everything that happened with my ex. Once again, I felt like I was avoiding it so as not to feel pain, always waiting for the right time, the right more comfortable environment. I cancelled my trip, spent a fortune on renting a car, went to Sedona for a day and came home mostly disappointed, instead of just biking still as planned but for a shortened trip. I have come to realize that I think so much hardship comes to me as a result of not listening to my heart's deepest yearning. I could have still had those 4 days away just with limited resources, instead I settled for short term gratifications, which ultimately failed. Not only did my teeth not get finished, my weekend sucked, and I was just tired of being lonely all the time. At the last minute I went out to that annual Phoenix Burn thing hoping to connect. I did feel like I had "risen from the ashes" a lot in the past few years and thought it was symbolic to jump the fire this year, as I had in the past, but I also didn't need to. It was a silly show-off thing that I'm sure I only did hoping for praise or connection, to be noticed by people for something after a lonely, depressing weekend.
I tell you these things, because I feel that they are all part of the same story. I may have come a long way, but I think the story of my broken foot is still very much connected to my broken smile which you are a part of. I want you to understand. As a friend and partner in all of this, but maybe also as a dentist. Something that I think is a problem and reason for a divide between patients and dentists is because some of them think like mechanics and see patients as broken cars that just need fixing. This does patients an injustice. I think it is grossly negligent and is part of why the health care industry in this country is so messed up to begin with. If prevention were as easy as just giving out a toothbrush there would be no dentists except in emergency rooms. So many dentists I see don't seem to have a clue how much a person's teeth affect every aspect of their being. Maybe they are in it for the money, Idunno, but it drives me crazy. This only makes it harder for them to relate to patients and patients to them.  If you go to see a dentist for the first time in 10 years and they ask you "what happened?" they simply don't want the answer "my parents didn't love me." "My girlfriend left me." etc. See also, obesity, drug addiction and all sorts of chronic health problems plaguing the country.
I am at a place where for the first time in 20 years where I may not ever be asked about my teeth, but I am still every day trying to unravel my past and understand the "what happened." There are days, even still $21,000 and 61 appointments later that I still don't always brush or floss, usually if I am feeling depressed or upset about something. Not all the time, don't worry. I just want to give perspective. You might very well know more about me than any other patient ever, and it's important to me to try my best to share with you, my own personal "words from the chair" like that book I gave you. Because I think it will only help to make you a better dentist and a more compassionate person. Though you certainly already are far above the curve in those departments. :-)
Breaking my foot reminded me so much of when my front tooth broke on my bike tour. I thought my life was fucking over. I spent that whole first month just feeling broken and lost and scared and uncertain of anything. My teeth felt trivial in comparison, like I would keep these stupid crooked plastic provisionals indefinitely JUST to be able to travel back in time and NOT jump that damn fire. But if not then, if not my foot, it would have just been something else, sooner or later. Suppressing things always seems to have a way to come back and bite you in the ass.
I am slowly accepting that this has happened to me, trying to be positive and have faith that I will be able to nurse and exercise my foot back to health in the coming months and do all the things I love again. Maybe it will always be broken, I don't know. But I hope that despite all of this, that finally I can learn from this experience so that I don't have to be. I am capable of moving on and getting past things, letting things go. I can learn from the past but not drive myself insane over things I can't change, and truly embrace the present moment.
I have spent the past few weeks writing letters to people from my past who I have felt there were unresolved feelings with in my heart. I had a talk with a friend recently about how people always feel like they need "closure" or they can't move on, "why can't they just say screw it, and forget those people and just get on with their lives and be okay that they may never hear from them?" I think for me personally, it's not always about them, but my own repression of feelings over and over that lead to patterns and negative habits that are hard to break. I carry some of these feelings and frustrations around with me all the time just like the secret of my teeth for years and it eats at me. Even if the other people may never write back or give you answers that you might hope for or resolve things, I think as a person so grounded in writing like I am that it is nonetheless helpful to ME to finally find that voice to get those feelings out and give them away so I don't have to carry the weight of such heavy words with me everywhere each day. I truly DO feel "lighter" when I get such thoughts out, even this email, though I feel there is nothing "unresolved" between you and I.
I actually wrote to my parents, forgiving them, and I think I am finally actually ready to mean it, and move on. I wrote to the first person I ever felt I was in love with but never told to let them know what they meant to me back then. I apologized to a friend I had a drunken argument with a year ago, inviting them to come back into my life. I told a former partner how much I would like it if we were to try to still be friends. Things that I have struggled with doing and asking in the past, because...Idunno, maybe I am afraid of the answers. But at least now I know I have said MY peace, gotten MY truth out of me, even if it may never be heard. No one can take that away from me, and I find it very vital to my own true healing, each letter laying another stone in the path toward my ability to smile again and be happy, find balance, find peace.
Thank you for listening to this really long message! I hope that it can also somehow help you in your life and practice, if only in its ability to offer insight into another human beings deepest feelings and struggles and motivations. I think I may actually edit a few things and post it in my blog. Sometimes writing to specific people helps to find a particular voice and conjure certain things out I've been wanting to say and there are certainly a lot of them in here that have been on my mind. You are certainly one of those people that it helps me to write to. 

I will spare you all the cheesy closing goodbyes and anecdotes. Yes, I write long letters. I am always up for new pen pals if you want to help keep the dying art of letter-writing alive. Thank you for reading :-)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

So, I haven't written in here in a really long time.

     It is hard to exactly pinpoint why that is. About a year ago when I last wrote I was in a pretty confusing and emotionally intense place. My student dentist who had been with me for 40 appointments and changed so much about my life was on the verge of graduation. I felt uncertain about what would come next, what the transition to new dentists would be like, if anyone else could ever fill her very big shoes that had endured and endeared through so many appointments with me. I was scared again for the first time since we began our journey together, wondering when I would ever finish, if I would be satisfied with the outcome, and sad that she would not be there to see it, to finish "her masterpiece" as I rightfully believed she deserved.
     That being said, I also was in a place, for once, where in general throughout my day, for the first time in 20 years, that I didn't really THINK about teeth most of the time. I was slowly learning to "let go," to let uninhibited smirks and smiles and laughs escape my mouth without such a strongly controlled and tense face always holding them back. Sometimes, for once, I was happy JUST TO NOT THINK ABOUT MY FUCKING TEETH ALL THE TIME, to not worry what anyone would think of me if they caught a glimpse of my open mouth in conversation, while chewing, etc. I still worried and always had questions and wondered when I would ever be finished with my treatment plan, but those feelings were mostly tied to "being at the dentist," whereas I was able to just enjoy the moment and not really think about them much, as I calmly continued to sock away every cent from work and just go about living my life when I wasn't at the dentist.
     I never meant for almost a year to pass between entries, but I think that fact is also a very telling fact about the extent of which I allowed thoughts of my teeth to always control my life. The more and more I found empowerment as the months went on and new teeth continued to be built and restored in my mouth, the easier it became to eat and the less I was in pain, the less and less I think I really WANTED to write in my blog. This "story" and my treatment and my blog for over a year was truly the focus of my life, but the closer I came to completing it, the less I wanted to really write or think about it and the more I wanted to just go about living my life, finally just trying to be happy and relearning to smile again. In retrospect now, I think that may have been a bit of a premature misjudgement.
     A lot has happened in my life since then, and I don't know if I will ever find the time to fill in all the blanks, but one thing has always remained certain throughout this journey to me. I said in the very beginning that I knew that if I had just won the lottery or something and managed to miraculously fix all my teeth instantly, that it never would have really healed the true and deep-seated "issues" in me that gave rise to this problem and all the ways I lived my life in the first place. I may very well have never come to the realization that my behavior was a form of self-harm,I may have never gazed so deeply into myself to try to truly figure out how to stop from carrying on these old habits into my new life with my new and improved teeth. It has been two and a half years now, and I have TRIED to do those things and it still is not always easy.
     I am going to try my best to "catch up" the parts of the story that I feel are truly integral to my growth through this experience and and worthy of including in the narrative. With my teeth slowly shifting away from being the main focus of my life, I ended up in my first "relationship" of sorts since this journey began, that was really interesting in comparison to those I had in the past before this journey. The past year of the actual dental process has been particularly slow compared to the beginning and also the most expensive. You may noticed that I have basically been PAYED IN FULL for my treatment plan ever since January of this year.

(The small remainder is for a nightguard when everything is finished, but since I didn't need to pay that to move forward with finishing my actual teeth I have held off.) It was great to finally have money again for a while! However, I have ended up poor again recently after breaking my foot a few months ago and being on medical leave from work. In the past several months, between trying to process "what went wrong" in my relationships and how my childhood issues and my teeth continue to affect who I am, and also being mostly alone and in bed for 2 months, I am trying to finally put the pieces all together of this confusing lifelong puzzle and finally heal and move forward with my life, a happier, more balanced and smiley person. Things are all becoming clearer as I realize more and more how it is all connected, and I even feel I can tie my broken foot to my continued inability to not always focus on myself or feel 100% comfortable alone. You have a lot of time to think about things when you can't walk, let alone hike and bike and do many of the things you love most!
     I am writing these words on the verge of what is tentatively my FINAL APPOINTMENT on June 17th where if all goes well, I will receive my last 5 crowns on my implants, including my implant-supported, fixed partial denture for my 3 front teeth, numbers 8-10, which have largely been what the entire suspense of this journey and my concern for a decade of my life has been about. "What will my front teeth ever look like again?" That little piece of porcelain and its zirconia guts will be the single most expensive thing I have ever owned of payed for in my life. It is a huge mindfuck waiting, always wondering what it will look like, what CAN it look like given the limitations of my mouth with its general asymmetry and bone loss, etc. I know that with this grand finale must come a certain level of acceptance and the ability to just be thankful and proud and feel "DONE" and just move on, but the Ego is a powerful force in allowing one to think otherwise. But I am trying!
     There are so many things about the past few years of my life that have turned out far more wonderful than I could've ever imagined all those years I lived in fear, and so many surprises good and bad. I am a firm believer that all things happen for a reason, and that life gives you the lessons that you need most to evolve and expand your consciousness, even if at the time you may not always be ready. I am learning to accept these lessons and be grateful and move forward, better than I ever could in the past, and it comes as no irony to me that my smile completion manages to also coincide with the time when I will also begin to learn to walk again on my freshly healed foot. Life always has a way of showing you what you take for granted, and finding those forgotten demons you keep locked away to tap you on the shoulder and remind you of how you aren't dealing with things you should be, if you are willing to listen. You can get mad at the world and blame everyone but yourself for your bad teeth or your broken foot or that your girlfriend broke up with you or countless other things, but when you truly accept responsibility for those things you may finally begin to see the role that YOU also play in them. I am working on this. It is a lifelong experience, and I am humbled and grateful that so many people have chosen to follow along with my progress. Thank you for reading, and I will try to write more soon.

Here are a few pictures from the past year. I think that you will agree, that though several of the teeth you can see in my smile are plastic provisionals, they are a profound improvement over the past partial denture, and certainly what I began with! Even when I smile without showing teeth, it still looks and feels much different.

Summer 2012 outside Macy's in Flagstaff

Winter 2013
Being silly on the swings in Miami, AZ October 2012

Getting my cast put on a few weeks after surgery from my shattered heel bone. April 2013

Most recent, laying in the grass in a rare green sanctuary-like house in Mesa, AZ, May 2013. This was the first time I really was able to spend in anything remotely resembling "nature" in two months since breaking my foot.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On Gratitude.

On Saturday afternoon, February 4th, I had my first real sort of bike accident in ten years, and the second somewhat "severe" one of my life. No one hit me, and it was my own fault, a combination of wearing sunglasses and misjudging an uneven section of the road which I sideswiped and threw myself into the road onto my hands. In the moment I did not even really think, as others often pointed out in the days that would follow, "Thank God you didn't hit your teeth!"

It didn't really seem that bad at first, mostly just some scrapes on my knees, I looked my bike over and drank some water and relaxed to let my heart calm down. I had been planning on making this day be the first in several months that I was aspiring to bike 50-60 miles. For a brief moment after my accident, I almost was about to still attempt it after I just calmed down. But as a few more minutes passed, I began to realize that suddenly I could hardly use my right hand without pain, my left thumb not proving much more usable. Having been through ENOUGH dentist appointments in the past year to always carry a few pills with me just in case, I popped a Vicodin and I walked my bike another few blocks to a Circle K, knowing that if I didn't eat soon I would give myself a killer stomach ache, and also to get some ice.

By the time I reached the store and went to lock my bike, I realized that my hands were practically useless. I could hardly lift the weight of my U-lock without cringing, but I finally managed to get my bike locked. With the help of elbows and shoulders and mostly only using the fingers of my left hand, I managed to buy a yogurt and a Clif bar and get a cup of ice and a plastic bag. I sat outside in the shade icing my hands and trying to figure out what to do next, but realized pretty quickly that I could not for the life of me open my Clif bar package nor peal the foil lid from my yogurt with my hands, it was THAT painful. Then I did something a few years prior I would have NEVER thought of...I used my teeth!

After that I managed to reach a friend who came and got me and took me home. I made a makeshift splint out of a sock and tape, and continued to ice my wrist and relax on leftover dentist Vicodin for the remainder of the night. However, I woke up in quite possibly some of the worst pain I have ever felt as it wore off in the middle of the night and asked a friend to take me to Urgent Care the next morning. As you may recall, I have been through, well...I think a pretty epic amount of pain compared to some, but this was seriously up there with my worst infected toothaches. Never having really severely injured myself before, I mostly only went because I thought something MUST be broken if it hurt so bad.

I have never really liked doctors, and this would be my first appointment with one since I began my dental care in an entirely different type of health care providing institution, and let me tell you, it was a far cry from the dental school. First I was seen by the nurse to check vitals, then the Dr. came in to bend my wrist all over despite telling me it hurt, and seemed offended that I still had my makeshift splint on, nor was he even concerned to ever look at my left thumb. He left and made the nurse come back in to cut off my splint before he would look at me again, and then we took some X-rays. As it turned out, I only had a severe sprain, which seemed like good news? I just needed to get a fiberglass splint and take more painkillers and not use it. Now, here comes the shitty ironic part.

The nurse came back in for what took all of 3 minutes to unwind the role of fiberglass, cut it off and affix it to my forearm with an ace bandage. Guess how much THAT part alone cost me? $180 dollars! They destroyed the splint I already had on to charge me $180 for 3 minutes of their time and probably five bucks worth of splint material they get wholesale or something. Are you meaning to tell me that their nurse is worth like five grand an hour then? A hundred and eighty bucks--I have had 3rd year student dentists give me shots, take X-rays free of charge, surgically remove molars with broken crowns, file down my jawbone, dig out my roots and stitch me back up for just over a hundred all by themselves, but Urgent Care has the audacity to charge me over four hundred dollars for ten minutes of telling me it's not broken treating my like a number while never remotely acting as if they had a compassionate bone in their body. I'll tell you one thing, it gave me even more respect for my dentists. Every single student who has ever set foot near my mouth knows me by name and greets me with excitement and care every time I have ever seen them in passing in the clinic. Though the health care system in this country is definitely fucked, and I think that insurance should be paying for it, not patients out of pocket like me, I still actually believe that what my dentists have done to me is worth the money it costs. It is absolutely disgusting how victims of accidents and people who can't afford insurance or are not eligible are exploited. Which unfortunately for those who live in Arizona, basically means everyone in poverty unless you are female and pregnant. Try getting AHCCCS if you are a homeless male in this city, just try. And if you wanna climb an even higher mountain, try being a teenager who is trying to stop using heroin and change your life who can't qualify for rehab because you don't have AHCCCS, which you can't get. But there I go again, bringing my job at a homeless youth resource center home with me!

The days that followed after my accident were a challenge to say the least. That first day afterwards, when Katie brought me home from the doctor, I could not even turn the handle of the door to get into my house. We had stopped and got me groceries, the majority of which she had to carry, opening all of my packages I couldn't get with a knife, orange juice, soy milk, etc because I couldn't turn the caps without terrible pain. Though I was only officially on no lifting from work for ten days, I swear it took me over a month for me to feel remotely functional again, and even then it was still around 85 and 50 percent usage of my left and right hand. It was a few weeks before I really risked biking too regularly again, and in the meantime during the few initial days I had off from work, it was an interesting experience to figure out how to live my life without hardly using my hands and without biking every day for the first time really in a year and a half.

First time biking near my house, shortly after my accident. February 2012

It's funny, I know that biking has made me live a "slower" lifestyle, more aware of my surroundings, my community, living simpler than the 4 years of my life I owned cars, but compared to walking, bikes sure SEEM like cars. Even though I lived in the neighborhood for almost a year, I still biked by much of it every day during my commutes without really exploring it. Walking around after my accident was the first time I discovered the grass and the trees and the birds of the local park by the capital, and it helped me to reconnect with nature in a way I had been neglecting for the past year, so intensely wrapped up in my own physical healing of my mouth. I had been so overwhelmed with all I had been through and trying to even process it all that I had lost sight of some of the other things that truly mattered to me, namely, my spiritual side and my connection to the natural world. A few days later I took a bus to a used bookstore and bought myself several new books, including one about a couple who left modern technology behind to go live with Minnenites for a year and a half, and another about the first scientists and tree climbers to explore the giant coastal redwoods I so fell in love with on my bike tour which was the catalyst of me facing this journey. In the weeks of healing that followed, I ordered more and more books from, including two that I consider to be particularly profound and life-changing, Becoming Animal by David Abram, and Soulcraft by Bill Plotkin, and though I find A New Earth to be particularly repetitive and kind of old hat to me, it was a pleasant reminder during that time to always focus on the present, to live in the now and make the most of every moment, and try to live a more stress-free, less Ego-driven life filled with gratitude. I also discovered this tremendously moving video online that very much relates, which I think is quite possibly one of my favorite videos I have ever discovered on the internet:

It's four months later now, and though my hands are mostly healed, I still haven't regained the full range of motion in my right wrist. For most of my life as an artist, I have always considered my hands perhaps the most important part of my body, and after years of doing pull-ups, I always trusted my arms with my life. At the time of my accident, it was a pretty profound and powerful switcheroo to realize that for the first time that I can remember, that I could actually depend on the strength of my TEETH more than I could my right hand. A few years ago, I never would have believe that I would be saying that right now, but it's true. They are not perfect, and they will never be the strongest in the world, but they are mine, and I am very thankful that I could count on them during those awkward and painful few weeks when my hands were useless. It gave me immense gratitude for Rakhee and all my dentists who have helped me to trust them again since this journey began--both dentists, AND my teeth. One of those first few days when I was sitting in the park under a tree reflecting on all I had been through in the dentist chair and learned in the past few years and how I had changed, I wrote this in my journal with my shaky right hand. I hope it can inspire others to cultivate a mindfulness and gratitude in their own lives and to live in the moment, and never forget how fortunate you are, to even be able to open your eyes. Thank you for all of the time so many of them around the world have given me to share with me in this story. I am trying my best every day, to make it one that you will not soon forget.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Random Reflections of the Past Few Months

What can I say, it has been a busy few months. I am sorry it has taken me so long to write. I feel so far behind that it has honestly been a little intimidating to try to catch up for a while now, but I felt that I needed to finally write again. A lot has happened since I last wrote. Between getting into my first bike accident in ten years and hurting my wrist and hands and the recovery from that, having my first annual check-up appointment ever and also getting all my implants placed, to reconnecting with nature and my spiritual side and reading and hiking during most of my spare time again, and also moving into a new home and out of my teeny studio finally, there has been so much going on in my life lately that it has been hard to focus and find time to blog for a while. I hope to elaborate on all of the above over the next few days.
In the meantime, here here is one of the last pictures taken of me in my old house where so much of this journey has taken place.

 I still have my annoying provisional denture in until further notice, and am now in the process of planning out the restoration process of my final 7 teeth, so though it looks awkward to me and nothing like my final smile will be like, here is a recent picture of that as well.
From April 16th, 2012

 I am hoping that I may be able to be finished with everything by August or September, but only time will tell. I had a bit of a monetary setback between being ripped off by Urgent Care after my bike accident, regular maintenance of my bike around the 5,000 mile mark (I just passed 6,000 a few days ago!) and moving into a new place and acquiring some furniture and things I did not have at my old place. But now that I am on the home stretch, I aspire to have some more dinner parties and random fundraisers again real soon, and hopefully can continue to stay ahead of my dental bills and not have to put any appointments on hold for lack of funds, which I have been incredibly lucky to never once have to do since this journey began, thanks largely to the huge amount of support I received during the first several months after making my story public and also Roger Ebert's tweet that ushered it further out into the world.
My apologies again for taking so long to update this, but I plan on making it more of a priority very soon, and have a TON to catch you all up to speed. Thanks as always, for all your support and for following along with me.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My One Year Anniversary of Meeting Rakhee & Going to the Dentist - 39 Appointments Later!

Though I was hoping it would fall on the same day as my first visit to the dentist in nearly 20 years, which occurred last year on January 19th, my closest appointment will be tomorrow's quick Post Op with Elif while Rakhee begins her Board Exams. As I am facing the home stretch now, I have been a moody mixture of emotions, both for Rakhee and myself and my whole treatment plan and this story in general. I can't help but wonder what's next for each of us, if I will manage to raise enough money and we will be able to finish before she graduates, what I will do with all I have written, all I have learned and if I will one day consider any sort of dentistry-related career, or perhaps fundraising and grant-writing for some community dental health non-profit, or if I will in some way inspire and partner with any of my student dentists down the road. I still am also constantly awaiting the next step, waiting to heal, waiting for a remotely consistent diet, trying to schedule my next appointments and organize my next fundraising events. I am kind of a mess, though I think I manage keep my emotions and stress in check by having my job to focus on and remaining grounded through exercise and spending as much time in nature and away from the mental malaise of city living as possible. I can't wait to finish and save money toward something ELSE, now that I have actually learned to save money as a result of all of this. I will most likely be saving to finally permanently move out of Phoenix and pursue a new life elsewhere. But that, you will have to ask me about again later in the year. For now, I want to talk about my anniversary, and the past year and how it has changed my life.
If I had had an appointment closer to the 19th, I probably would have written something very similar in a card to Rakhee as I just posted for her in a previous blog that listed the 30 most inspiring people I have known that have helped shape me into who I am today. However, since I could not, I shared the link to it as a proud gift I posted online for the world to see on that date. Since that entry is incredibly long and much of it doesn't specifically relate to my teeth, in case you may have missed it, I want to share the section that relates to her  again here, as I consider it of significant importance to this blog, to our story. Here it is:

 29. Rakhee Patel

Rakhee and Trent  fighting the Battle of Tooth 17. March 2011.
The most color-coordinated filling appointment ever.
dunno, I just like this picture. It reminds me--Impressions always seem like a calming Zen moment and 5 minute head hug. (How often does anyone hold your head motionless, anyway!?) It's a humbling and moving time to reflect upon all that we have been through. It's  kind of the most at peace one can feel in a dentist's chair...once you learn not to gag, that is.

Rakhee is my student dentist who has been with me for 35 of my 39 appointments in the past year and my partner in writing the story of my smile reconstruction...not to mention the HERO of it. She is the architect who was able to envision a new and improved me before I ever even thought it was possible, and made me believe in her dream. Every time I pick up a toothbrush or floss it it a "thank you" to her...for showing me after nearly 20 years of feeling incomplete as I watched small parts of me disappear to decay that I'm not broken. For teaching me a new language to speak about the one thing in my life I could never utter and giving me the courage to find a way to make that darkest secret I most hated about myself into something positive and inspiring to the world. For helping me to make something often taken for granted and/or hated or feared into a uniquely heroic tale that for the first time in my life helped also transform my writing into something positive and accessible to thousands of supportive people all over the globe. For giving me the strength and guidance and support to face my deepest, darkest, most depressing secret and brave over a 100 hours in a dentist chair. (So far!) For helping me to find the discipline to save money for the first real time in my life and often sacrifice my sanity to sock away nearly ten grand last year--nearly half my earnings. For showing me that anything is possible if I believe in myself, and for always believing in me. For giving me my smile back, slowly yet surely, and inspiring me to truly open up to the world, regardless of how many teeth I happen to have or how afraid and vulnerable I might feel. For always making me feel taken care of, despite how much pain and torture I have endured throughout my appointments in a way that no family, lover, or best friend ever could, and teaching me to for the first time in my life to take care of the most neglected parts of me. For helping me to heal, in far more ways than just easing the pain of a toothache. For having the patience to deal with a crazy, intense patient like me, for teaching me so much about myself, and I hope even, for allowing my honesty and perseverance to inspire and strengthen her desire to be a dentist and a healer, while bearing witness in such a firsthand and intimate way to the power of her abilities to truly make someone have a better life, to watch them physically transform before her very eyes, and know that it was at her own hand. For being my biggest cheerleader through all of this. I hope that my trust in you and support from the beginning to be a part of such an intensely personal journey, let alone to let me share it with the world in such a graphically-detailed, specific and personal way on the internet, has helped inspire you to be an even better dentist--to see things, for once, so elaborately through a patient's eyes, "shoes," and mouth and truly see how exactly who you are has made a difference in the someone's life.

Pinar and Rakhee...though they've never met, they kind of go hand in hand to me. My blog about my transformation is as much about both of them as it is me. Pinar was the one who helped me to face my own demons as I helped her face hers, and prepared me mentally to finally move forward before our lives went in different directions. Rakhee is the one who picked up where she left off and helped me to fix myself physically, both of them healers in their own right who helped me to learn to love myself and be more comfortable in my own skin. Years from now, when I look back on my life...there will be the lonely, shy, cynical, alienated and tortured Paul I was for the first part of my existence, and there will be everything ELSE that came after the Hell and back adventures of 2010 I spent in love, compassion and giggles with Pinar, and my physical reconstruction and new beginning at the hands of Rakhee and relearning how to smile, enjoy eating and open up to the world, the two of which who gave me my smile, my happiness, and my life back. Words will never express the immense love and gratitude I have for them, always.

I also want to share a portion of her reply:
I am speechless Paul. That blog entry was one of the most genuine and sincere things I have ever read! It reminded me why I chose to become a dentist, how small gestures of kindness go a long way, and how big of an impact people can have on another's life! You are great, thank you for that post-- I know that this has been such a crazy journey, but it is so comforting to read that it has truly impacted you in so many positive ways!

I find myself telling people of your story weekly, and ironically was just talking to a student today about you. She was wondering how I got you as my patient, and I said he just kind of "fell into my hands." Her response: wow. I said I know I am really lucky. It is great to know that I have made such a great impact on you, but you have taught me a lot too! You are one of my most complex cases yet, from complex dental procedures to learning new ways to tackle a problem or just understanding what reviving someone's smile can do for their life and future; it has been a great journey indeed! So thank YOU.
Her sentiment and I guess my sentimentality for our entire journey together and trying to even wrap my head around it all upon the anniversary inspired me to a few other gifts to her the occasion. After several frustrated hours in Photoshop (I'm kind of a Luddite when it comes to art. an analog kid who prefers X-acto blades and tape to computers.) and cropping and resizing and trying to reasonably color correct all the pictures to look somewhat the same, I managed to finally come up with something I was happy with that I have printed out to pass along to her tomorrow. This digital version, however, of course looks better:
After creating this, I thought about how else I feel other things besides just the physical appearance of my mouth have changed as well over the past year. I remembered this old picture of me that happened to get snapped at my 3rd appointment after my gross debridement when Rakhee was documenting the beginning status of my teeth, smile, facial structure, etc. I HAAATE that picture and think I look totally exhausted, nervous and all-around unhappy. I may have yet to overcome completely occasional feelings of stress, depression, anxiety or frustration, etc., but I have most certainly come a long way in the past year. I am human after all! But just the fact that I have begun to manage to loosen up the tension in my face and retrain my muscle memory to be more prone to smiling after so many years of tight lipped scowling and furrowed brows certainly must be becoming more and more evident to all who knew me before. To try to demonstrate that, I also created this for Rakhee and to commemorate the occasion in the blog as well so I could share it with you all. I am trying, slowly, to make the default expression on my face more of a reflection of the inner me--warm and kind and compassionate, and less an image of 20 years of pain, frustration, alienation and bitterness. I hope I am doing better!

I am trying to process it all. It has been such a long year and it is still far from over, though we ARE getting close. It is hard to even know where to begin when trying to tell you how many different ways my life has changed. Sometimes pictures can demonstrate more than words in the case of the ones above. Here are a few more that I think also tell a very different story of "Old Paul" vs. "New Paul."
For the past several years, all that I ever owned to maintain any sort of oral hygiene was basically one crappy toothbrush I used for far too long, and probably only every other day or so. Before I met Rakhee, this was all I had to take care of my teeth.

Though I didn't manage to save everything, this is the majority of all I used and used up to take care of my teeth in the past year. I currently have an electric toothbrush, prescription toothpaste and use 3 or 4 different kinds of floss. I will probably buy a water pick soon, and need to get more mouth rinse at the moment. I think I am going to even start carrying it on my bike in my "extra" 3rd water bottle holder that usually has peanut butter in it.
 I am glad that I can say, that I feel I have almost forgotten what it was like to feel pain in my mouth. The cuts and stitches and shots from corrective procedures are nothing compared to a single day in my previous life, and I gladly would have traded the pain of an implant healing for a few days with what it felt like to accidentally bite down on infected tissue growing over a fractured crown while chewing any day. It is hard to believe how much I have been through in the past year, and even harder to believe how many years I tried to ignore such intense pain previously, living in perpetual denial and pretending it would go away or I would one day win the lottery or something, and it would all figure itself out for me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My 39th Appointment and 2 more implants.

On January 9th after a long hiatus, I went in for my second and third of six dental implants, and my sixth major dental surgical appointment. In case you don't know, student dentists often go on rotation, working in different departments or in the case of 4th years, with entirely different educational institutions altogether in different parts of the country. This has proved particularly difficult in trying to work around in order to allow Rakhee to be directly involved in my treatment (rather than her other classmates who have often assisted, or her mentee student) but also to find times when her schedule, the implant specialist for the school's schedule, my work schedule, and also that of my friends who have helped me with rides to the 30 mile away clinic to all manage to line up. I had hoped this surgery could come a month sooner, but we could not resolve the time conflicts. Some people might ask, "Wouldn't it be easier to just go someplace else to get implants?" but that is not an option to me. Rakhee and I began this journey together, and I aim to try my best to allow her to be a part of as much of the restoration and completion of my treatment plan as possible while she is still available. We are a team. I'm not sure I could explain that any better to anyone but us. Those four words are the only ones I need to explain it to myself.
These implants were basically the same as the first one, so I will spare you the majority of the details. Surgeries are a little more intense than other appointments in every sense of the word, and there are also three people hovering over me and my mouth at all times so I don't get the luxury to really take many pictures, but I did snap a few that I will share with you.
Before we began, Rakhee's student assistant El mentioned how great the tray looked and how she wished she could remember this exact set-up to use in the future. I happily accommodated and took this picture for her. Hope she reads this!

Here is a pic of all the Zimmer drill bits and tools for implant placement. I'm curious what the colors mean. Note there are several diameters to drill increasingly large pilot holes until the necessary width of the hole is achieved. In this case, my particular implants were both 4.7mm.
Here is a slightly more detailed picture. Note the little ratchet in the back. Damn I miss my dremel!
I have certainly tasted blood in my mouth a lot over the years, not to mention in all my surgeries the past year, but I must admit, feeling the first incision when the flaps are being made and feeling files on my actual bone and the sudden surge of rusty blood taste in my mouth still made me feel a little nauseous. This was the first time I can recall actually feeling that way for a bit in an appointment, and I had to disassociate from everything for a minute and breathe til it subsided.
After the desired diameter and depth of the hole in my head has been achieved, the dentist places a guide pin in the hole and takes an Xray in order to determine if the correct angulation has been reached and that the pin should be parallel with the roots of the adjacent teeth and also centered in the bone. Above is one of my bloody guide pins after the Xrays.

I keep forgetting to ask if I can have the little containers my implants come in, dammit!

Rakhee and El taking turns suturing. These pics are some of the first I've taken at the dentist with my new GoPro HD Hero camera I got myself for my birthday. It was really the ONLY purchase of a significant amount I have spent the entire past year for anything "unnecessary" since I have been saving virtually every cent past rent, food and phone to pay for my treatment plan.
Hey El, that is the treacherous "Minnesota," right? Or is that a "cowhorn?" I forget what that is, and I never really got to see some of those tools I hated from your perspectives. All I know is that one of my previous extraction appointments I swore that thing was gonna tear through the side of my cheek!

I'm including this one just because it came out dark and looks more sinister!
It had been 2 1/2 months since my last appointment, nearing the one year anniversary of my first appointment, and I felt it was time once again to show my dentist some love. I totally forgot to take a picture of the present before I gave it to her. It is an ice cube tray that makes denture-shaped ice cubes! Upon reflection a few days after I gave it to her it occurred to me...that I always keep giving her these fun and silly dentistry-related gifts that I later want as well!

I recently bought a set of Polaroid-shaped cards I had intended on mailing for the holidays. (I love Polaroids and still use mine despite film costing almost $2.00 per picture. Though I have yet to find the time to share many of them, as I flipped through them, this one seemed perfect for the occasion.

This is actually rare for me, that a card or a letter be so "short and sweet." If you read the previous blog entry, however, of the "30 most inspiring people I have ever known," my entry for her which I shared shortly after this, is much more extensive, in reflection upon the past year and how far we have come.

I took this shortly before I left the clinic, which has seemed to become a customary ritual to document how out of it I look. Also...I bleached my hair!
I took this several hours later that night to get a better look at my stitches. Shown is the site of my implant for tooth #20.

And here is the view of the implant site of tooth #12, which, interestingly enough, the whole time during my surgery I had actually thought was #14! It FELT like 14, strangely enough. But that one, as well as my implants at 8 and 10 will be saved for another day very soon I hope, provided my bone has regenerated well. We shall see!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The 30 most positively influential/inspiring people I have ever known, that helped shape me into who I am today, and why.

(I posted this on Facebook as a note just before Christmas, 2011. I hope to find the time to finish it real soon. I felt it all related to who I am now and where I am in my life and how I got here, and wanted to share to the world the people who have mattered most to me. It's still not quote finished)

Winter is always a time of reflection for me and often I seems to find myself taking an inventory of who I am and all I have experienced--if you don't know, I make a lot of lists and write myself tons of notes. It is also a death of old ways of being, of sorts, so that I can emerge in the new year a stronger, more confident new me. This being said, I spent a lot of time this weekend reading through some old journals. I have compiled a list of who I consider to be the 30 most (positively) influential people I have ever come into contact with in my life, that have helped to make me a better person, and/or helped to shape and give clarity to who I am. I had originally only wanted to do 10 but it was fucking impossible! Below is this list, in somewhat of a chronological order, each followed by a small explanation of why. Congrats if you made the list. You don't "win" anything, but I owe you my everlasting love, gratitude and friendship. Thank you. I can't help but wonder whose lists out there in the world the crazy person I have been for most of my life has also managed to inspire.
Know that it is all of you who had the biggest impact on me, and have made me who I am today.

1 & 2. My Grandparents.
Me and my Grandparents. 1980.
Me and Ma at Demay. Christmas 2005.

My Grandparents rescued me from what would have certainly been a worse life, and raised me as their own, despite being in their 40s & 50s and living off of social security. They both cared more for all their children than any other examples I knew growing up, and sacrificed many luxuries, living simply in an old-fashioned way in a small town I would in many ways fail to see the significance of til after I finally left it, til after they were gone. I owe my tinkering, DIY, stubborn spirit and goofy old man sense of humor largely to Grampa, my self-sacrifice, empathy, compassion and selfless support of those I love to Ma. More than anyone, I know my heart would burn with a dim flicker of what it does today if they had not saved me from my previous circumstances. Every positive thing I do for anyone else in the world stands as a tribute to the impact they had on me. I hope they knew how much I loved them, before the shy, awkward kid I was ever grew old enough to realize it and tell them. They were the heart of my whole family, and I am forever grateful that they saved my life. They always tried the best that they could, and even though I grew up far from perfect, it was enough. There was not a single day of my life that I could ever doubt they had anything but love for me. I may not have been created by them, but it was them, and truly them, who gave me life.

3&4. My Aunt Barb & Uncle Robert
If my Grandparents were my quirky old-fashioned elders, Barb & Robert were like my "OTHER other set of fun parents." I know it is totally Barb's fault I grew up loving so much cheesy 80s music and taping the top 40 religiously every Sunday. Barb was generous enough to pay me a $2.00 allowance when no one else in my family did, and probably had more to do with teaching me to wash and comb my hair than anyone, though I always hated all matters of hygiene. She was the first person in my family that ever did something adventurous and GOT OUT of our little town to run off to Alaska, and I know that way back then that it always filled me me with wonder, to hear her stories of what life was like so far away from all of us. Robert on the other hand, entrusted me with the privilege of using his full movie and music collection at a very young age and I know without him I would not have grown up with such a love for movies and lived vicariously through so many fictitious heroes throughout my sheltered rural existence. In my early teens they used to always take me to wander the mall and see movies together. To this day I can't set foot in a movie theater, play an arcade game, or listen to 80s music without thinking of them. I spent many nights after school fascinated with Sci-Fi doing my homework in Robert's room while we watched Star Trek and solving all the riddles of our Nintendo and Genesis games together.
For the 6 days a week that my "real parents" were never around, even only as single people with small incomes in their early 20s and 30s, they always tried to give me the fun life that no one else did. I doubt to this day that either of them realize how much that meant to me.

5. Andy Sampson was my neighbor and best friend i played war in the woods with every day for years from around 3rd through 5th grade. He was the biggest kid in our class and a few years older, and I was always one of the smallest, and I know fearlessly wrestling with him and pretending we were Rambo and GI Joes in the woods virtually every day had a huge effect on me being able to face other people who fucked with me, and in general "not take any shit." Together, our imaginations transformed a few small acres of land we were allowed to roam around in into an entire world of fun adventures of our team against...well, everyone, where we of course, always emerged triumphant. When I finally left NY, I couldn't help but think of him in my travels as I was finally facing my "Rambo complex," and seeing how I could truly survive out in the REAL world with whatever circumstances befell me without my giant friend and our arsenal of plastic weapons, stick swords and rock grenades to protect me.

6. Mr. Gill was my 5th grade teacher and whom I credit with giving me much of my "punny" grandfather sense of humor from and interest in science and how things work. He inspired me to be virtually the only 5th grader I knew who read Popular Science and took all his toys apart. He always found a way to make science, and all subjects for that matter fun for his students, and probably gave me more praise for doing well than any other teacher I ever had. He was the first teacher I had that treated me like a son and always had a way of making me feel like the smartest kid he knew, and truly felt sad having to leave him and go to middle school at the end of the year.

7. Mr. Cook was my 9th grade English teacher, whom I'd also spent some time with previously in the "Gifted and Talented" program. He was the first teacher I had who supported my creative writing and encouraged me when I began to write my own strange definition of "poetry" that year. We had to turn in a few 100 words of writing per week that counted as a large portion of our grade, and though I made it through high school and even college without remotely liking or even truly understanding the logistics of how to go about writing a research paper and practically failed every one I ever attempted, I still passed his class because my other writing scored so high. 9th grade was a huge year for my creativity. I don't know if it had anything to do with my Grandfather dying the previous year or not, but it was when my art and writing really took off. I always used to back and hang out with him on occasion after class and show him more recent writing during the rest of my time in high school, and despite it being all over the place, his criticisms always seemed to make sense and he always found positive things to say. I have always wanted to show him how much better it became later in my life, and share y blog with him if I could ever track him down to give him a little more insight into who I was back then. If not for him I don't know if I would have ever developed my writing into such an integral part of who I am. He was the only english/writing teacher I ever felt close with. I hope one day we can reconnect.

8. "Pfaff" was my 9th grade Studio Art teacher, and my main art teacher and mentor throughout the rest of my high school art career.

9. Regina Lepkosky was quite possibly the first girl I ever had some sort of weird "crush" on when I was 16, whom I met at my old neighbor best friend Andy's grandmother's wake and spent only 3 short days hanging out with her. I was in fact, super sheltered and never hung out with anyone outside of school really. She was the first girl I ever walked on the beach with, the first whose name I ever carved in a tree and ran up my grandmother's phone bill calling on the other side of the country. I stayed up all night the day she left writing the first "song" of my life trying to somehow put into words how I was feeling, and she also became the first penpal I ever had, and first person I made cheesy mixtapes for trying to somehow communicate the "real me" through music to a near stranger. Though we never became more than friends and mostly lost touch a year or so later, she to this day stands as the person who planted many of the seeds that would later become the sensitive, emotional, romantic and poetic me.

10. Ira Gray

11. Robyn McLaughlin - Years before the internet became widely available, Robyn was the first total stranger I ever wrote to based on a short ad in a newspaper for penpals, and is the first person I ever reached out to and fumbled through my every stream of consciously rambled thought for 10 page letters on a weekly basis, desperate for any sort of new friends outside of my close-minded school when I was 17. She was the one who inspired me to write constantly, to realize that I could better understand my thoughts if I could just get them out, and in a year we wrote each other over 50 letters. Though she only lived like 70 miles away, and though during that point in my life she was quite probably the closest, most valued person to me in the universe whose letters brought me more joy than most other things, we tragically never met before I lost touch with her. She was the gateway to me unlocking my soul via a black Pilot ultrafine pen on narrow-ruled paper, inspiring me to at one point have ten penpals and spending the majority of all my spare time my last year and a half of high school writing hundreds of letters and finding a voice to tell a small handful of people who the real me was, despite always feeling shy and like a total alien in my high school.

12. Christine Iacovetta
Me and Christine in her dorm room at SUNY Oswego. Fall 1997.

was my first best friend I had in college, and the one who inspired me to become vegan.

13. Norris Flint was the landlord of the house my family rented for over 30 years, and owner of the 120 acres in our neighborhood that I grew up playing in. He was a lifelong farmer, who lived to be nearly a 100, older than anyone I have ever known, and worked virtually every day of his life. He also dug graves for several of the cemeteries in the nearby towns, mostly by hand, and buried over 7,000 people in his life, including his wife and my Grandfather. He never really charged us more rent than it took him to pay his taxes. He was a friend to all, with one of the most unique voices I have ever heard, and I always enjoyed the days we would visit with him when we went to pay the rent, chasing cats on his ports and chickens and Guinea hens all over his yard, and trying to get the attention of his cows. He was the first real farmer I knew, and one of the nicest and most generous and understanding people in the world. His land was my entire world as a kid, my playground, and I believe that I spent more time exploring it and being captivated by it that anyone else ever did. He always felt like he was a 1,000 years old to me, and was probably the closest thing to a "wizard" in my eyes as anyone I have ever known. He may have been a man of few words, but you could never doubt that he was a wise man who lived a full life by looking into his kind eyes. He was the one, after all, that we all entrusted to take care of the bodies of our loved ones. Whenever I asked him a question about farming or splitting wood, it always felt like he was the dictionary, and if it wasn't working for me, I must not be listening. I will never forget, one of the last times I saw him he had asked me why I didn't eat meat, and though we were from entirely different times and worlds, when I explained to him about factory farms and pesticides and mankind exploiting animals rather than being caretakers of them, I could tell deeply within him, that he knew all too well, and it felt like he had carried years of sadness about the way the world was changing. It felt like, this one 100 year old man understood this one radical choice of mine better than virtually anyone in my family or my town who all seemed to think I was crazy. I will never forget that day, and I will never forget Norris. His life is a testament to what one man can do to me, and I think of him whenever I pick up a shovel to dig a hole or feel the earth in my fingertips, every time I pack my toys and tools and snacks and run off into the wilderness like I might not come back. He always felt like part of our family, like a Grandfather to all of us, and I am eternally grateful for his kindness that allowed my poor family to afford such a nice Home.

14. Matthew Friday
Sammy, Me, Matthew, Eric, Laurel at Lousia's graduation party, Oswego, 2000.

15. Aaron Gordon
With Mike and Amanda. Oswego, 2002?

Aaron was my best guy friend in college i always went out drinking and playing pool with who always tried to get me layed. He was the first art student I knew who started his own business, the first person who ever taught me how to burn my first cd, and one of my first male friends to regularly hit on me. We were the most hilarious couple of dudes to ever regularly frequent Greene's Ale House, him an overweight, goofy John Candy sort of character, and me usually looking like a polyester-clad, bleached hair Billy Idol wannabe. We were also to my knowledge, largely responsible for them removing the air hockey table due to liability for how crazy we played, often hitting people with the puck. Aaron more than anyone I think, in my early 20s, wanted to drag me out of my shyness and empower me to see the world and talk to girls. Though he sadly lost his life to cancer at 27, thanks to a "Good Will Hunting" conspiracy with Matthew, I hope that he knows that he did just that. I can never play a game of pool or listen to our 4 favorite jukebox favorites (moondance, respect, salisbury hill, another one bites the dust) or watch full metal jacket without thinking of him. In fact, on the rare occasions I actually win at pool, I know that he is with me.

16. Ashleigh Spaulding.
After I graduated college, I ended up in a similar confusing, lonely place back at home in the middle of nowhere without a car like I was in high school. The main difference was, Al Gore and his friends somewhere had gone and invented the internet, and though I grew up without cable, for the first time in my life the world was at my fingertips during my lifetime of insomnia. Instead of penpals, I began my search to try to define who I was in online profiles of various sites in hopes I might connect with someone out there, somewhere. Before the days of Facebook, Myspace and Friendster, the first site I stumbled upon to network was, geared towards the emo/punk/hipster community I guess. I was kind of in fact, one of those in 2001. Around that time I was also fascinated with Chuck Palahniuk and the poet Jeffrey McDaniel, who had a huge inspiration on my early writing. The first "internet crush" I ever found online was Ashleigh. In the early days of my internet presence, I would mostly look for girls who liked Fight Club and music I liked and try to impress them with my clever, sarcastic metaphors, Ashleigh included. She was the first girl I ever stayed up all night talking to on AIM, the first one who I am sure had a hand in inspiring me to always be trying to write a novel about a hopeless romantic who worked at a dildo factory I never finished, and the one of the people who inspired me to begin writing my every thought in Livejournal to share my writing with the world. She was the first voice on a computer screen that filled me with joy and made me laugh. Our connection will always remind me of listening to saves the day in my minidisc recorder in the most expensive headphones I ever owned after I bought my first bike in my life and pedaled off into the sunrise after staying up all night chatting on the way to my first screenprinting job. Though we never did meet, she remains a mystery and a muse and yet another of those early people I was smitten with who propelled my writing forward and helped me to find my voice in those early days before I finally escaped the town I grew up in. I don't know if it was really love, or if we would even get along in real life, but to this day our online babbling can still hold my attention like no other, and I think we will always be special and unique connection unlike any other we have. My heart still skips a beat whenever she says hello. She's disappeared a lot over the past 10 years, but I am glad she always comes back to surprise me when I least expect it. XfuckingO...

17. Kate W.
One of the first pics Kate ever sent me. Winter 2003.
Leaving viola practice to brave the snow again at SUNY Potsdam. Fall 2003
Those crazy Thought Criminals. Being silly in Great Norther Mall Photobooth, Winter 2003.

Katie was my first love whom I met during what was quite possibly the worst and most depressing time of my whole life and also probably when I was the "craziest." It was so long ago now that I almost forget what I was like before then, but...she was the first person I ever kissed sober, the first person who ever made me believe in love or ever feel beautiful, the first person I ever told my lifelong secret about my teeth. The first person who ever gave me the courage to bring to life the crazy, adventurous character I always envisioned myself as in my writing so that I didn't feel like a shy, awkward, emo hypocrite. Kate taught me how to treat every moment like it was our last, talk to and help strangers, love the viola, and at the end of each night together, fall asleep happy and at peace confident that if "this (life) is all we have," at least we lived the shit out of it. To risk everything for the sake of my dreams, even if in that point in my life my biggest dream was a person. She showed me for the first time, that I was capable of taking care of and loving someone, even if I wasn't always good at taking care at or loving myself. Our 11 months together, most of which was a secret from parents who hated me, was the most intensely crazy up and down, romantic and dramatic time of my life that proved to me that I knew how to love someone after writing about it for years, even if it was ultimately bad timing. I will never forget the fearless way she could make anybody laugh, or how I used to always say "if you can make a Paul happy, you can truly change the world." I won't forget secret lovenotes on sugar packets, how my first car was the only place that felt like a home to us, or how every moment together when we first met left us so in awe that we used to say we needed "Wow Tampons" because we had so much wow coming out of our asses. All we ever both wanted was to make an impact on someone and to not every day feel forgotten. I am living proof that those wishes came true, and I hope that she still carries her memories of me like notes scrawled on sugar packets hidden in pockets of brown corduroys. I have 3 tattoos that remind me of her every single day, and I will never set foot in a Dunkin' Donuts, listen to strings, or look at my wrist without missing her and those crazy times when every day felt like the world was ending, but together, we always made it okay.

18. Kathleen Dowling
One of the first pictures I ever saw of Kate from Myspace. Spring 2005.
Kate is the closest friend I ever made from the internet of almost 7 years who i feel also is perhaps kind of like the closest thing i have ever had to a "sister," though I can't deny the occasional inbreeding/partner in crime fantasies along with everyone else who historically always seems "obsessed" with her. Haha. Though we rarely ever seem to find as much time to be friends as I believe would be mutually beneficial for us, I am nonetheless grateful for every second of time she finds amidst her chaos and single-mothering to share her love and thoughts with me. We bonded over our passion for blunt honesty, sharing secrets and embracing the weirdness of the world, and she is one of the only people I know will always accept and not judge me, no matter what crazy Paul thing I do. I gave her what I consider to be one of the greatest gifts I have ever given anyone years ago--an antique spice rack I have slowly filled with samples of earth and rocks and plants from all of my travels over the years--and though the initial thought behind it was partially to try to slowly inspire her to leave her shitty town and find her own adventures, it recently occurred to me that the REAL gift, the one she has given to me by holding onto such a gift, is the comfort who she is gave me to entrust her with my history. I hope that if anything were to ever happen to me, that with my spice rack of "spells" that she could conjure all of my most epic stories and do my memory justice. She also happens to be raising the most awesome kid I know. I can't wait to see what she does one day when she finally breaks free of Midland and finds  the courage to fully confront her own fears, reach her true potential and find happiness and a supportive community of like-minded people, as she has always supported me. I have dreamed of being around for that day for nearly 7 years.

19. Shannon Murray

20. Becca Barbanell
Exploring South Mountain, Phoenix 2007?

21. Alex Votichenko
Preparing for Civic Space Jam, Phoenix 2010

Alex was one of those people I met early on at the Willow House along with Becca, Ryan, Jenna, Allyson, Melissa, Danny, Sean and Ben whose support inspired me to give the place another chance. He was also the one who pointed out a nearby roof he thought seemed safe to sleep on which ended up becoming my home for 3 months when I became homeless, and told me about Way Cool, where I had my second stencil art show here (while still homeless) and let me paint in his backyard despite barely knowing me. Though we were already interested in a lot of the same things and I never managed to meet his crazy friend Merv, it has always been inspiring that he has managed to use his arts, be in music, drawing, making burritos and pulling together some of the best events Phoenix has to offer, often by the skin of his teeth to live life on his own terms ever since I have known him. Similar to Andrew Jackson Jihad in his Phoenix pride despite all the haters, (including myself), Djentrification I think is a mysterious spirit whose passion and presence are permanently embedded in the hearts of all of us downtowners so deeply, that if he were to ever leave here, it would feel at least to me, that one of my favorite parts of Phoenix stopped breathing. Some of his virtuoso nights where I've had the privilege to witness dumbfounded people hear some of his mixes for the first time are some of my favorite moments in Phoenix.

22. Michael 23 for showing me its okay to be burnt out and crazy and biting off more than you can chew for the greater good of dreams, and always supporting me, and kind of feeling like my Phoenix father in a weird way. for somehow managing to raise a family while also facilitating 3 different communities of crazy artists and providing affordable platforms for them to experiment and take babysteps toward their potential ( or sometimes big steps too!) for creating such an epic annual event with the ritual of the phoenix burn that in my subconsciousness the experience almost feels like the true celebration of another year passing when I am here. for having the patience to actually sit through so many years of house meetings for the greater good of keeping the firehouse a dynamic, interesting and productive space where no one kills each other and where virtually anyone trying to do anything cool in Phoenix can always have a venue to try pulling it out of their ass for the first time. It may not always succeed, but watching so many members of our community grow on the firehouse stage over the years and even if only momentarily make some of their dreams a reality has been truly inspiring. you have given me 2 of my homes in this often frustrating place, and the support and understanding and respect to grow and always feel like a valued member and voice in the arts community. If Phoenix had 10 more people like you, downtown would be a very different place.

23-24. Ben & Sean

(of the band Andrew Jackson Jihad) for wearing the heart and soul of Phoenix and all of its ups and downs on their sleeve. they are more of a "mascot" and point of hometown pride and voice of the times in phoenix than any other band, and in my mind they are up there as equals on a wall of fame with beastie boys in how they wove the spirit of NYC within their humorous and absurd lyrics. No one can invoke the same touching sentimentality for this place as they do, whenever I listen to them from afar, No matter how much I have ever hated Phoenix, I can't leave an Andrew Jackson Jihad show without loving it, at least for a night, filled with gratitude to share the experience with every old drunk, teenage hipster, ASU idealist and jaded townie alike. If you told me 4 1/2 years ago that 2 of the bearded white coffee slingers at Willow House would have possibly been capable of making me momentarily well up with Phoenix pride singing Hallmarky shit like "people are the greatest thing to happen," or proclaiming "I am a werewolf," loving the nearest stranger as much as all my friends in the audience and truly feeling like a silly concert is capable of bonding us all, I would have never believed you. Knife man is quite possibly my favorite album of the year, and I am so fucking honored to know these bearded goofballs as real people and to have spent the past 4 1/2 years watching them grow and succeed yet still be as down to earth as the day we met that I feel like a fucking Dad opening his wallet to show off his Sons whenever I play their music for someone new. I love you guys. Thanks for always making every show feel like "We Are the World" when I was a kid before I ever understood why the world was fucked up. Every show you play is a "benefit" to the human race, as far as I am concerned.

25. Steven Serrano, my supervisor at Tumbleweed for the past 4 years, and friend.
For seeing something in me no one did, giving me one of the greatest opportunities of my life to create the first homeless youth-run screenprinting business in AZ with TumbeTees for 2 1/2 chaotic years of trial and error and reinvention (and also coordinating the Drop In Gallery) and believing a crazy negative artist guy could somehow create something that was an empowering experience for youth. Also for welcoming me back to Tumbleweed during the most epic transformative year of my life to work as a Youth Care Worker when I know I could never have done it any other time. My job has only encouraged me to fight harder and harder to overcome my past fears and negativity and find a positive face to greet the youth we serve and mentor each day. I never would have imagined I would have been a social worker before I came to Phoenix, and now, quite often, it is hard to imagine me being anything but in one way or another. That is certainly Steven's fault, more than anyone else.

26. Joey G
Relaxing on the couch on top of the bread truck behind Conspire. 2010

For perpetually asking "why not?" to every no answer and encouraging everyone to do whatever the fuck they want, making it okay to never grow up and being the Peter Pan hero of all the anarchist lost boys of Phoenix who actually want to build things and not just burn them down. for daring to always try new things and push peoples buttons and try and push people outside of the box, even if they can't think when they get there, or get along. Not every crazy idea can find the right environment and nurturing caretakers to help it grow, but rarely have I ever met a person who tried his damnedest to plant so many seeds in a place that doesn't rain, perpetually living the dream that maybe, just maybe, one of those fucking beans might be magic. Just you wait and see...

27. Renetto-Mario Etsitty
Mario in his kitchen, Fall 2011.
Though our different habits left me struggling to live under the same roof, Mario has grown on me more after I moved out of the house I shared with him for a year as an elder in a way, a keeper of lost secrets, storyteller, a healer, someone who has created in his rather overwhelmingly "full" house a place that can nonetheless feel like "Home" for all of us wanderers and refugees of the night to share laughs, stories, and always leave with full bellies. I admire the selfless way he shares his culture with all of us, friends and crazy random drunks who show up on his doorstep alike (note: sometimes these are one in the same) and the hours of labor and intentions put into every meal. I am humbled and honored whenever I get to share a kitchen with him, and grateful for all of his help with my fundraising.Whenever I finally leave this place, I hope to carry on a similar dinner party tradition wherever I go.

28. Pinar Ates Toprak Toy
Waking up in a snow-covered forest with Totoro in Presscott, AZ. February 2010
En route for our 5 day road trip to Boulder, CO. March 2010
Exploring the Earthships in progress in Taos, New Mexico, March 2010

Relaxing in the sun in Yosemite, October 2010
Hyperventilating with giggles on the beach

San Francisco, November 2010, upon completion of our 1,100 mile bike tour.

For being the most perfect mirror for who the real me was I've ever looked into, and the most intense companion of my life. for conjuring more love and giggles out of me than anyone else, ever and for being one of the most passionate and sensitive people I have ever known. for showing me that I can change someone's life, and whose strength inspires me every day to move forward with my own. for showing me who i was and what i could be and inspiring me to change the parts I didn't like or die alone and afraid. for sharing her resurrection from the ashes of our tortured Phoenix existence with me and living a dozen lives in our year together. for helping me to reconnect with my family, my past and the earth and show me that i am a spiritual person, and accompanying me on on the greatest adventures of my life. for inspiring me to rethink my 11 years vegan and reinvent myself and learn to take care of myself instead of just my ethics. for helping me to pull off my greatest and most honest public "poetry" performance at my Conspire feature. for always making every day feel like an adventure and allowing me to tag along for over 6,000 miles of memories together with her. for being the first person I ever felt comfortable to accompany on a "vision quest" and for trusting me with her life more than anyone ever has. for having the courage to spend 2 straight months, 24/7 with another crazy person to be my partner for our "Owlala bike tour," what to this day is the greatest adventure, test of strength and will power, and life-changing experience I have ever had or shared with with another person. She was the first person who ever made me feel comfortable enough to give the tour of my mouth, who always believed in me, and helped me find the courage to make my first dentist appointment in 20 years. the first person who helped me to begin to write my first autobiographical story to try to face my childhood and overcome my fears, that would later become the beginning of my blog--a story that has now been viewed over 17,000 times. I will never be able to think of an owl, a raccoon, the redwoods, ride a bike, eat eggs, laugh at a bird walking, watch a Miyazaki movie, go camping, build a fire, use skype, or ride in a Prius or hear the Indiana Jones theme song without thinking of you. It was you who helped to ease the wrinkle in my brow, soften my the perpetual tension in my body and give me voice back. My love letters and emails and notes to you stand as some of the most beautiful, honest, empowering things I have ever written.
Though you may not have been the one doing the reconstruction, one day down the road when I can finally smile again, know that it was YOU who layed the foundation for my dentist(s) to build upon, as together we reminded each other, over and over, that we weren't broken, and were capable of doing anything we wanted to. Even when I don't hear from you, know that your spirit always gives me strength, Pinar. I will always love you. And I still want to help you build that rewilding center one day...

29. Rakhee Patel
Rakhee and Trent and my most pain in the ass extractions ever. That's crazy, look how long your hair is!

Rakhee and Maryam and MORE impressions!

Idunno, I just like this picture. It reminds me--Impressions always seem like a calming Zen moment and 5 minute head hug. (How often does anyone hold your head motionless, anyway!?) It's a humbling and moving time to reflect upon all that we have been through. It's  kind of the most at peace one can feel in a dentist's chair...once you learn not to gag, that is.

Rakhee is my student dentist who has been with me for 35 of my 39 appointments in the past year and my partner in writing the story of my smile reconstruction...not to mention the HERO of it. She is the architect who was able to envision a new and improved me before I ever even thought it was possible, and made me believe in her dream. Every time I pick up a toothbrush or floss it is a "thank you" to her...for showing me after nearly 20 years of feeling incomplete as I watched small parts of me disappear to decay that I'm not broken. For teaching me a new language to speak about the one thing in my life I could never utter and giving me the courage to find a way to make that darkest secret I most hated about myself into something positive and inspiring to the world. For helping me to make something often taken for granted and/or hated or feared into a uniquely heroic tale that for the first time in my life helped also transform my writing into something positive and accessible to thousands of supportive people all over the globe. For giving me the strength and guidance and support to face my deepest, darkest, most depressing secret and brave over a 100 hours in a dentist chair. (So far!) For helping me to find the discipline to save money for the first real time in my life and often sacrifice my sanity to sock away nearly ten grand last year--nearly half my earnings. For showing me that anything is possible if I believe in myself, and for always believing in me. For giving me my smile back, slowly yet surely, and inspiring me to truly open up to the world, regardless of how many teeth I happen to have or how afraid and vulnerable I might feel. For always making me feel taken care of, despite how much pain and torture I have endured throughout my appointments in a way that no family, lover, or best friend ever could, and teaching me to for the first time in my life to take care of the most neglected parts of me. For helping me to heal, in far more ways than just easing the pain of a toothache. For having the patience to deal with a crazy, intense patient like me, for teaching me so much about myself, and I hope even, for allowing my honesty and perseverance to inspire and strengthen her desire to be a dentist and a healer, while bearing witness in such a firsthand and intimate way to the power of her abilities to truly make someone have a better life, to watch them physically transform before her very eyes, and know that it was at her own hand. For being my biggest cheerleader through all of this. I hope that my trust in you and support from the beginning to be a part of such an intensely personal journey, let alone to let me share it with the world in such a graphically-detailed, specific and personal way on the internet, has helped inspire you to be an even better dentist--to see things, for once, so elaborately through a patient's eyes, "shoes," and mouth and truly see how exactly who you are has made a difference in the someone's life.

Pinar and Rakhee...though they've never met, they kind of go hand in hand to me. My blog about my transformation is as much about both of them as it is me. Pinar was the one who helped me to face my own demons as I helped her face hers, and prepared me mentally to finally move forward before our lives went in different directions. Rakhee is the one who picked up where she left off and helped me to fix myself physically, both of them healers in their own right who helped me to learn to love myself and be more comfortable in my own skin. Years from now, when I look back on my life...there will be the lonely, shy, cynical, alienated and tortured Paul I was for the first part of my existence, and there will be everything ELSE that came after the Hell and back adventures of 2010 I spent in love, compassion and giggles with Pinar, and my physical reconstruction and new beginning at the hands of Rakhee and relearning how to smile, enjoy eating and open up to the world, the two of which who gave me my smile, my happiness, and my life back. Words will never express the immense love and gratitude I have for them, always.

30. Aja Volkman

Aja is the singer of my favorite band, Nico Vega and someone I have slowly come to feel like I can actually call a friend after several times we have talked after shows and little connections here and there over the past several months online. I wrote about her and the band in my dental blog, and how an old blog of hers on myspace was one of the inspirations for me to begin facing my fears in such a public way. Despite being a larger than life Goddess on stage, she is one of the most down to earth "rock stars" I have ever met. The last time I saw them I wrote her a 7 page letter about the effect that her and Nico Vega had had on my life, how I consider her a kindred spirit of sorts, and how I always seem to see them when on the verge of a huge turning point in my life. I also baked them a bunch of cookies for the road and shared other little gifts I had created, and though some performers may have just thought I was a crazy, obsessed fan, I knew that Aja would cherish it as a touching outward expression of human emotion. Always wearing her heart on her sleeve, in her lyrics, onstage, in her blog, on facebook, and no doubt in real life, she is someone who to me is the epitome of passion, vulnerability, kindness and understanding, who has magical way of making every single fan in the audience feel connected to her and in the moment. Her captivating presence is unrivaled by any performer I know, and I look forward to her concerts as practically a spiritual experience. Her voice lifts me up from my own deepest depths when nothing else does (and always makes me pedal faster on my bike) and though I don't really get "starstruck" or have "idols," every brief moment when she finds the time to respond to me is like a "high-5 from God" or something, that has always made me smile, even through broken teeth.
I am so grateful to have stumbled upon your music 2 years ago and for all the moments of connection we have shared, however brief, and that people like you exist in the world. "Lucky one" and "wooden dolls" make me cry practically every time, and I hope that when I finally finish my dental work that you will be able to see me regain my smile and my voice as well, as I sing along to your new album. I dream of the possibility of Nico Vega being able to play at my big grand finale "Apple-Eating Party and fundraiser, after all that you guys have helped me to smile the past few years, and reminded me to always "pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!" and also so all the people who have supported me in my community can finally see how amazing you are. Thank you Aja, for being you, and offering so much of who you are to the world. You always help me to remember to be present, fearless and in the moment.