Friday, November 2, 2012

Through the Wire: Reflections on my Broken Jaw

My last post got me thinking about how much more important food has become to me since breaking my jaw, so I decided to do a little reflecting on that here. I realize it doesn't have anything to do with traveling, but it is something I want to share. So, here are some thoughts on privilege, suffering, and eating. 
Until a few months ago, I had never broken a bone in my body. Neither had I ever been on a diet or lacked sufficient funds to eat—even though one semester I had to sell plasma for grocery money, which resulted in a diet of mostly pancakes from a Bisquick mix my mother had gotten me at Costco, which eventually resulted in an inability to eat or smell or even think about pancakes without my stomach turning. But I digress. 
The point I am making here is that I am a spoiled white girl from the northwest who has hardly endured any physical suffering. I’ve never been in a car wreck or had a cast; never even had a cavity.
So, last May, when I got in a head-on with another cyclist and ended up with my jaw broken in two places, I was mostly unprepared for the month(s) ahead. Still, I was lucky I didn’t break my head open or just die right there, which helped me maintain a positive attitude about the whole thing.
Also, and this is probably sort of sick, but I am one of those people who actually kind of enjoys suffering. Growing up, I was taught that suffering and denial make people strong—which is something I still believe, despite myself. I don’t mean that I grew up practicing flogging or other forms of inflicting physical pain, but I grew up believing that if something was hard in my life, enduring it would make me a better person. Denying myself has always given me a weird sense of accomplishment. I used to fast with my mom regularly and occasionally gave my meager babysitting money away in the offering plate.
While I no longer believe in giving money away or starving myself, I really do think that these things made me better somehow. People these days—especially us Americans—avoid suffering at all costs, thinking we can pay or work our way to a comfortable existence that we deserve. We are entitled, we think, to be happy and successful. But where is the challenge? Where is the satisfaction of knowing who you are and how you behave in different situations?
It was this type of thinking that kept my spirits up as I went to the hospital to get my jaw wired shut the day after the accident. I didn’t tell anyone, but I was strangely relieved about the whole thing. Everything had been going just a bit too well. How was I supposed to have any deep revelations as to the human condition while perfectly healthy and happy and about to graduate college? Exactly. Now I could do something great. I could turn my suffering into some exalted art form, I told myself, like the Great Russian poets and writers. Because obviously the physical suffering of a broken jaw in the 21st century is comparable to suffering in czarist Russia…oh wait.
Anyway, I came home from the hospital with two surgical steel arch bars wired through my gums and around my teeth in 19 places and wired tightly to each other. My mouth and jaw were swollen and numb and for a few days I slept and drank only clear liquids (mostly liquid hydrocodone) through a large syringe that had part of a catheter tube attached to it. I had to poke the little tube around to the back part of my mouth and shoot liquid down into my throat. It was a hilariously pathetic affair.
After awhile I was able to drink through a straw—but it took about a week before something as thick as a melted smoothie would fit through the wires and teeth and into my mouth. And everything was too cold or too hot, since it had to go directly through my clenched (and sensitive) teeth. Eating became more of a chore than anything else. I had to drink something four or five times a day and was still hungry most of the time.
Friends came to see me or take care of me and I’d write notes to them in a notebook because it was still too hard to talk. They would be all sweet and sympathetic, but then they would come in for a hug and somehow my head would get bumped or jostled, making my jaw ache worse or causing the wires to cut my cheeks or poke through my gums.
I got used to a routine of Ensure for breakfast, liquefied soup for lunch, and a smoothie or more soup for dinner. I tried to avoid going places where people would be eating, but that is impossible. So I tried my best not to scream or cry when I watched my friends taking big bites and slurps. Even the most disgusting food started smelling good. I wanted to eat at McDonalds for the first time since I was a preteen.
Once, I had a very detailed dream about trying to eat Nutella and then realizing I was actually a horse with a bit in its mouth. A lot of nights I woke up from dreams about food or dreams that I was suffocating. Or worse, that the wires had popped off and my mouth just kept opening and opening until my whole head was a giant open mouth.
Professors were understanding and sympathetic and I somehow finished up my classes and managed to graduate, all wiry smiles and lisped thank yous. My parents came and we went to the park and drank smoothies instead of going out to eat somewhere where I’d have to watch them healthily masticating.
Anyway, I survived. I celebrated each small step: my first smoothie, my first soup, my first beer, etc. And I gradually learned a lot of things about myself.
I learned that I talk too much—that there are a lot of things not worth saying. I learned to laugh at myself. I mean, it’s hard not to laugh when you listen to yourself try to talk with your mouth wired shut. And once you start laughing, you realize you sound like a nerdy, congested, 10-year-old boy at science camp, and it’s hard to stop.
I learned to bring a straw everywhere I went. I learned to be patient with myself when I got tired so easily, and I learned to forgive the people who forgot and ate loudly around me or complained about not having anything to eat. I learned how ridiculous it is to get annoyed and call people douchebags when you can’t open your mouth—it sounds like “juicebag.”
By the time I moved back in with my parents, I could mumble my order at a coffee shop without having to repeat it multiple times and explain to them “I’m sorry, but my jaw is wired shut and I physically cannot enunciate any more clearly.” I had also sang karaoke (Kanye), started riding my bike places again, gone backpacking, and in general, tried not to let my wires get in the way of much besides eating. 
For the last week or so I had so much food stuck in my wires that my mouth just stank, no matter what. I brushed and brushed, but there was no way to get that stuff out. It was rank. And then, to top it all off, when I finally got my wires out—which was a bit like having someone floss my teeth with wire, except that it was through my gums—my teeth were stained dark brown because of the mouthwash my doctor had made me use.
This is what nearly broke me. I had been fine with suffering as long as I knew that there would be an end, that I would gradually and eventually recover the use of my jaw and mouth. But when I got my wires off—which I had obviously been looking forward to more than anything—and my teeth were brown and chunky and looked like I’d been chewing tobacco for twenty years, I broke. I guess I had not been so ready to suffer after all. I was not just upset that my teeth were nasty and would probably remain so, I was also upset at myself for letting my stained teeth get to me when I should have been so happy just to be able to open my mouth again. I realized that I am not as strong of a person as I thought I was and that I don’t know what I would do in the face of real, long-term suffering.
Despite the fact that my doctor said I probably wouldn’t be able to get the stains off until I could get my teeth professionally cleaned, I got most of them off after about two weeks of brushing with baking soda and peroxide. I still had my arch bars on for another month and had to eat only soft foods, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t chew at first, but I slowly worked my way from mushed up avocado to cottage cheese, to well-cooked vegetables, etc. I could yawn and talk normally and breathe out of my mouth without feeling like I’d suffocate—which meant I could hike and run much better than I’d been able to.
Now when I’m eating something chewy or crunchy or especially delicious, I sometimes find myself close to tears because I love being able to eat again. I may not be as strong of a person as I thought I was, but now I know that I can go five weeks without solid food and not kill anyone, which is something. And I now have a whole new appreciation for food—and am in the process of cooking and eating everything I can just in case I break my jaw again. 
This was pretty much my food for a few days.
Camping/backpacking food. 
Beginning stages of wiring. 
After about a week of brushing with peroxide and baking soda. 


  1. Maybe your suffering was worth it for your lessons learned but also because this post made me laugh a lot. Who has two spoon thumbs and a sister who can write a funny post about suffering? This gal.

  2. what happened with yoru stains long term? I just got my wires off, and I have like a black film on a few teeth and on my tongue. After a few brushes, I've managed to get most off my tongue and the teeth definitely look better, but man its stressful

  3. The stains are gone now. It just took time and lots of brushing with baking soda and peroxide. Hang in there, dude!

  4. Ok, makes me feel better to see you traveled through South America, I actually live in Cartagena, and will be going back once everythings out of my mouth.