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 :-)


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  2. What is the status with your smile now, Paul?