I often get asked by my friends, family, and coworkers, “What’s it like wearing braces?” This usually comes from those who either never had braces or those who did but had them so long ago – the appropriate time to have them – that they have since forgotten. Now that I got my braces off this week, I’m getting asked the other question, “What’s it like having your braces off?!” I can answer both of those questions with one hypothetical scenario.
You know when you’re walking down the sidewalk and realize that you have a rock in your shoe? And not just any rock, but a pesky, jagged one that is digging into and cutting up your foot. It’s so tightly wedged between sock and shoe that you can’t get it to move off to the side enough with just your toe, so you have to stop, take off your shoe, and empty the damn rock.
Imagine that when you go to take off your shoe, someone emerges from behind a dumpster and stealthily locks a metal brace around it, a brace equipped with a digital padlock that only opens when the timer goes off…eighteen months later. But then they tell you that, if you’re good, they might actually override the timer and open it after only fourteen months! And then they don’t. And then they tell you that it won’t open at eighteen months because they extended it to twenty.
That’s what it feels like having braces. And this week, my timer finally expired and opened that god-forsaken lock so I could take off that dirty, ugly, stinky shoe. How bad was having braces? Well, it wasn’t stuck in prison for twenty months bad, and it was most definitely a first-world problem, but it was really quite pretty bad. And I am now really quite pretty relieved.
Now that I’ve made it through, I’m going to do what Bert Betterman always does…give his experience to the people so that they can use it, learn from it, laugh at it, and probably make fun of him a little. So on that note, I give you:
The Bert Betterman Guide to Wearing Braces Over Age Thirty!
At some point you may be faced with a decision. Two different dentists over the span of two different years will tell you that not only would your teeth look nicer if they were straight, they would also stop banging into each other like bumper cars parallel parking in Lower Manhattan, thus avoiding fractures in the future which will surely cost you even more money down the road.
At this point you start to become skeptical and wonder if these are all fear tactics to scare you into spending money. But then you remember how many times you do accidentally bang your teeth together and bite your tongue or mouth while chewing, talking, or shivering out in the cold waiting in line for concert tickets.
Then they take impressions and show you a mold of your teeth. Even though you originally thought they were supposed to look like that, you eventually realize you’ve lost up to 30% of a few of them. Evidently the back sides are supposed to be smooth too, not concave with a shaved texture reminiscent of mountains carved by glaciers over many thousands of years. It really is a fractal universe, people.
And then you give in. And cry. And write out that damn check after realizing…
Insurance (Probably) Won’t Cover You…Sucker!
There probably are plans out there that will cover braces for ignorant, procrastinating idiots in their early thirties, but most don’t (and they’d probably be expensive anyway). My particular dental “insurance” plan stated quite matter-of-factly that “Braces are covered at 50% for ages eighteen and under and 0% for those above eighteen.” In other words “You should have gotten braces when you were supposed to, sucker! Life has consequences. Deal with it.” At least I would have appreciated their sense of humor.
While we’re on the topic, how can they call this “insurance?” I have worked for an insurance company for ten years now and studied them frequently for four years in college. Do you know what “insurance” truly is? Insurance is paying someone else a certain sum of money (a premium) to take on your risk of uncertain payments in the future. The idea is that you’re willing to pay a little each month to prevent yourself from having to pay a lot at one time that you can’t afford.
What does my “insurance” plan do? It allows me to pay a little bit of money each month to get free checkups every six months (but still charges for cleanings) and covers nothing of my $6,000 bill for braces (the very large payment I may not have been able to afford and that which insurance was designed to take care of for me). What about root canals?! Does it cover those?! Well, probably, but that’s not the point, and it doesn’t apply to me at the moment.
The First Twenty-Four Hours
You’re going to feel straight-up weird and uncomfortable, my friend. And you’re going to be in a little pain. And when you go to eat your first meal, you’re going to sit there for an hour and a half trying to figure out how to get your two sets of teeth to actually connect and make the food get in the middle somehow so you can chew even a little bit before you swallow. At the end of that time, you will have eaten half of your meal but lost your hunger due to frustration and the fact that “it just passed.” Yeah, hunger does that. It gets over it and moves on.
At this point, you might start crying as you realize that you’re never going to be able to eat enough food to survive. You’re going to wither away and die slowly over the course of the next eighteen…check that, fourteen…check that, twenty months. And for what? For straighter teeth? Seriously? Are you really that vain? Wait, we were doing this to avoid fracturing and larger dental outlays in the future. I forgot about that. It does make sense; hang in there, kid.
Oh, and you’re probably going to wake up around 3:00 AM with teeth and jaw pain. Not that you were going to get good sleep anyway; it already took you an hour to floss, which you decided to attempt right before bed for some reason, thus already behind schedule. Heed the lesson and plan ahead. It’s like trying to get anywhere in New York City…it’s gonna take an hour…just plan for it.
(Nope, this is no longer a thing)
The First Two Months
After you get through the first twenty-four hours, but sometime before your two-month checkup and tightening, the following things are going to happen. The pain will have lessened. Your teeth will no longer feel like they’re getting stabbed with icepicks each time you bite down on food. You might even move on from soups to soft meats like scallops. Your teeth will feel weird, you won’t be able to form a bite, and you will be extremely uncomfortable and irritable, but you will have settled in a bit now and resigned yourself to a shitty life for a while.
Eventually you’ll start to talk in public again. Then a couple weeks later you’ll actually be able to pronounce words well enough for public to understand you when you talk. You might show your teeth a little when smiling but still not during photographs. In fact, for any important photographs you take, you’ll kindly ask someone if they can airbrush that for you. Pretty soon you’ll start to think “I’m kind of rocking these braces!” And then one of those wires pokes out from the end of your back tooth and razor-cuts the side of your mouth. Son of a…!!!!!!
The First Tightening
You will have made it two months, at which point your orthodontist wants to tighten your wires to pull your teeth even harder and put you through more hell. “It’s all a process,” and “It’s only fourteen more months” will be marginally-comforting mantras that you latch onto while you’re sucking (not chewing) on ice cubes after meals that are at least starting to resemble actual meals now. At least they were until this appointment you just had.
For the week right after the tightening, you’re basically back at the first twenty-four hours all over again except this time it hurts more for some unknown reason and your teeth still come together about as well as divorced parents at a high school graduation party. You might even start to wonder if the orthodontist implanted tiny magnets within each tooth, like poles facing each other so that they are forever resisting. My orthodontist is a hell of a nice guy, but my friends know him tangentially as “Lucifer,” “Dr. Evil,” and “That Dentist Dick.” That’s not true…I say things I don’t mean when I’m dealing with dental trauma. I can become quite a rabid anti-dentite.
A Few Tightenings Later
Things aren’t so bad now, and the tightenings don’t even hurt that much unless you try to eat steak the first couple days after. Eventually they “remove” those metaphorical magnets from your teeth so you can make a decent bite on things, but if they do so too soon, you wind up biting down on the brackets, which really smarts. Sometimes you’ll knock off some good chunks of tooth enamel, and you’ll spit them out later, a little chunky, a little powdery, like a mix of unevenly-ground sea salt. Not to worry, you’re reassured that can be fixed later. I wonder what that costs…
You don’t think much about social ramifications of braces (except still for photos), and they don’t feel so weird anymore. They’re kind of part of you at this point. You’ve forgotten what it’s like not to have spikes in your mouth. Why didn’t you get Invisalign, anyway? Oh, because they can’t move teeth vertically or reposition your jaw with those. That takes metal and rubber bands. Oh god…speaking of…
The Rubber Band Period
At the beginning, you’re not entirely sure. They haven’t brought it up yet, but you don’t want to ask. Then at your next appointment, they start acting awkward, like they have something to say but don’t know how to say it. “Here it comes” you think to yourself. And sure enough…rubber bands. They show you how to hook them on, and they do it in two seconds, so you think it’s going to be easy. Then that night before bed you sit in front of the mirror in frustration. Twenty minutes and seven rubber-bands-flung-across-the-room-and-lost-in-the-carpet-and-air-vents later, you’re exhausted and ready for bed. Still probably easier than putting in contact lenses.
Here’s the thing about rubber bands. They’re awkward to put in at first, they rub weirdly on your tongue, they scrape the side of your mouth, they don’t taste good, they create a whole new pain in your jaw from pulling against those muscles, and they look ridiculous. However, you get to fling them at people around you…when you’re a kid in school. Which you’re not. You’re thirty-something. Rubber band period stinks.
The Period of Uncertainty
When you first sign up for this farce, they tell you that it will last an approximate number of months, probably eighteen. Then throughout the process they may give you words of encouragement and tell you that things look “ahead of schedule.” This, of course, will get your hopes up that you’ll be done sooner. You won’t. They will never be perfect, and they’ll keep adding months to the timeline. Eventually you’ll be back on schedule. Then behind schedule. Then just when you think they’re going to tell you it’s only one more appointment…it’s two or three more appointments.
Some humans deal with uncertainty better than others, but no one, especially when it comes to the length of time you have to do something you don’t like doing, enjoys uncertainty. And hearing that it’s going to be “just a few appointments more” will not only shatter your dreams of getting them off and send you into a deep, dark depression, it will also infuriate you that you don’t actually know when you WILL get them off. The uncertainty will slap your mind around like tether ball for the indefinite future.
The Last Month
Then, just when you think you can’t get any more depressed, it finally happens. They tell you it really is JUST ONE MORE MONTH! Well, actually, they’ll want to go two or three more until you give them the stink eye, refusing to open your mouth in dead silence until they start talking again and backpedal into agreeing that you’re probably close enough. Sweet! One more month!
As awesome as this will sound, it actually winds up becoming a curse. In the beginning of the process, you hated those braces. They hurt. They were uncomfortable. You just wanted to rip them out of your mouth and quit. But then that resignation happens that we discussed earlier. They start to feel more comfortable. You’re invested in the process, so you just as well calm down and keep going while trying your best to ignore that they exist.
But now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you’ve already gotten 95% of the benefit. You start sliding right back into that mindset of the early days. Just like old people get goofy, cranky, and wet their pants again resorting back to child-like behavior in their waning years, you start resorting back to being a whiny baby at the end of your run with braces. You even start having dreams where you literally rip them out of your mouth, blood everywhere, and a few teeth still stuck to the brackets. Hey, dreams are weird, kids.
This is the period where you really have to suck it up because you can’t blow it now. You’re almost there! Sleep more hours if you have to. Take a vacation. Stub your toe once in a while for a distraction. Whatever it takes, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’m trying my best to encourage you here, but it’s not going to help in the throws of one of those “Would someone please just hit my mouth with a baseball bat!” fits. It just won’t. But you’ll be…um…fine. Just fine.
The Finish Line
See? It’s going to be just fine. You’re on your way to the orthodontist…to get your braces off! Oh crap! You have to get all the way to the orthodontist. Past traffic and unconfirmed but potential muggers and murderers and…it could storm! Tornados! Hurricanes! Earthquakes! Why is everyone driving so fast! SLOW DOWN! QUIT HONKING, JUST GO AROUND! What if you don’t make it?
You made it. They pull them off, and it hurts for a few minutes. Then they polish the adhesive off your teeth, and it smells and tastes like someone is holding a bowl of burning rubber inside your mouth. But soon that’s over too. Then they take impressions for your retainers by filling a cast with a bunch of putty and make you bite down on it. Upon impact the displaced putty hurls toward the back of your throat like a boa constrictor striking at your tonsils, and you almost vomit on the orthodontist assistant.
You’re a “man,” though, so you hold it in with just a really large gag and a couple of convulsions. The orthodontist assistant rests her hand on your back and says “You’re fine. Just breath, and hold right there.” Then she assures you that you wouldn’t be the first person who puked on her…at work. You may or may not believe her. Eventually she suctions that thing off your teeth and lets you wash out the remaining putty from your mouth and your facial hair (cause yeah, you’re thirty-three now, not fifteen), and you’re free to go with your new slippery teeth and a commemorative t-shirt.
The second dentist that implored me to get braces said “It’ll be like an eye blink.” To him it probably is because he only sees people every six months, so maybe three or four visits and their braces are off. From the first-person perspective, however, I can certainly tell you it feels much, much longer than that. It’s never too late, though, to make a change. There’s still time to go through hell for a while and enjoy the benefits for the rest of your life. I mean heck, you still have like over half of your thirties left. And you know what they say, “Thirty is the new fourteen!” Next week I’m getting my training wheels off…baby steps to adulthood.