Diane's Voice


May has been a bit of a misery. I decided, after recommendations from my dentist for almost 20 years, to have periodontal surgery to correct some gum recession and lower my risk of losing teeth in the next few decades.

These are the fun things we write about at 50, folks.

I don’t know how many teeth I needed to have done, exactly; probably around 10? And of course, they were in all quadrants of my mouth. A normal person would probably have done one quadrant at a time, maybe two. But no, not me. I decided to have them done all at once.

The benefit: they’re done, and now I never need to think about it again. Which is good, because if I hadn’t done them all at once, after quadrant #1 I probably never would have done quadrants #2-#4.

The drawback: Ow. Like, so much ow. All over my head. Still. 20 days after surgery.

I had initially scheduled this surgery for our Spring Break, which would have been over Easter. After my consultation appointment, deciding to do it all at once, and then reading about recovery, I reconsidered. Having the procedure on a Tuesday and then driving to Tallahassee on a Thursday when the worst part of recovery was supposed to be 72 hours out was probably not the best idea.

I was right.

I make many, many foolish choices in life. I overestimate my ability to withstand pain, pressure, workload. I spread myself too thin. This time, I did not do that. I guess turning 50 also brings some small level of wisdom. The initial plan was not only to go to Tallahassee and celebrate Easter, but to head back to work the Tuesday after–only a week post-surgery. That would have been an even bigger nightmare.

So I waited until after I’d finished teaching and scheduled the surgery for Thursday May 4th. The people at the office were great. I’m thrilled I went there. I have no regrets about my choice of surgeon. I felt no pain. They used a numbing agent and this gum-massager while injecting the novocaine that made it feel like nothing more than a pin prick. The surgery itself was fine. The music was great, the staff and doctor were telling stories. The three-and-a-half hours pretty much flew by.

The office sent me home with an amazing chocolate-banana smoothie (no straw) and when I got home my husband made me an iced coffee because I wasn’t supposed to have anything hot. I think that may have been the best part of the month. As were the cold compresses. I never wanted to take them off.

Within two hours of arriving home I was sick of being numb. “I think you’re going to be kind of grateful for the numbness in a few hours. Enjoy it while it lasts,” said my helpful anesthesiologist-husband.

Actually, I didn’t mind the numbness wearing off. I was taking 800 mg of Ibuprofen every 8 hours alternating with Tylenol. I was happy to be able to feel the lower half of my face, close my mouth, move my lips, speak somewhat like myself, stop drooling, and smile (even though that really hurt and I had to tell the kids not to make me laugh). The pain was the kind that I would feel when I would have my braces tightened.

I had the surgery on a Thursday. Friday was okay. Lots of Advil, lots of cold compresses, eating almost nothing, lots of fluids . . . all was well. Still that feeling of stiffness in my teeth, but nothing much more than that. I even went to church on Saturday. I was truly optimistic that–despite being told that 72-hours would bring the height of my pain–I was pretty much recovered.

Then came Sunday. It was definitely the worst day after the surgery. I was in a no-good, very-bad mood. Achey, irritable, frustrated, cranky, unhappy, and hangry. I’d tried to eat soft but solid food Saturday night and only succeeded in aggravating everything in my mouth. I wasn’t allowed to brush my teeth at all for seven to fourteen days after surgery. I had a mouth rinse with mint, and that was . . . okay, but it wasn’t enough. The restriction on brushing, of course, was because if I brushed I could dislodge the gum grafts. I did not want that to happen, so I refrained from even using the soft toothbrush I’d been given, though my skin was itching from lack of oral hygiene.

My tongue kept seeking out and playing with the stitches in my gums, which the instructions also said to avoid so as to not disturb the grafts. That was great advice–if I was doing it consciously. But I wasn’t. I would be sitting at my computer, writing, researching, doing my thing, and suddenly notice my tongue messing with a stitch. I remember similar things happening with loose teeth as a child, after I had wisdom teeth removed, and when I had braces.

Though I think I was able to rein in my secret inner-masochist pretty well, by Sunday afternoon some bruising started to appear on my face. My gums were very swollen, my mouth hurt from my chin to my nose, and I found it almost impossible to focus. I was still alternating the Advil and Tylenol. I was frustrated to the point of tears. Three to four days of down-time I can handle. But to be so many days out and feel worse instead of better, despite being told that was expected, was hard–because I’m superwoman, and healing rules obviously should not apply to me.

Monday was back to life. I hadn’t scheduled much, but I did have some appointments because Monday was the post-72 hour mark, and I thought I’d be clear. Thankfully I kept the schedule light because Monday was also the day the TMJ pain started. For those of you who have never had temporomandibular pain, it is jaw pain that runs along the entire jaw-bone and can radiate from the chin to the ear to the temple. I had suffered from TMJ pain in my twenties because my jaw had been misaligned by tooth removal for braces. It got better slightly after I wore braces for a second time, then got really bad again before I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. But once I started wearing a CPAP, all pain went away.

Well, now it was back with a vengeance. Throbbing pain from my chin to ear to my temple on both sides of my head. It was like having someone inside my bones using my jaw joint for a drum. 800 mg of Advil barely touched it. A lower dose of Tylenol actually helped more. I ended up having to take a muscle relaxant that worked until it wore off, but didn’t offer any sustainable relief. A few days later, after my stitches were removed, the sensitivity to hot and cold started. I ate a cold tangerine on Saturday, which was a terrible mistake. My jaw throbbed without relief for two hours that night.

I’m not telling this story to whine or complain. I am grateful that I had the surgery, and I’ll probably be more grateful when I’m in my 70s and still have my teeth. I’m also not looking for sympathy. I made this choice; I did this to myself.

I’ll take advice on dealing with TMJ pain if you’ve got it.

What I’m musing on in all of this is how mentally debilitating this physical pain is right now. I don’t usually publish my blog posts at 11:45pm. I’m an 11am – 1pm person. 5pm is tardy for me. But that’s when I can focus, which has not been the case this week.

We see or hear about friends and acquaintances recovering after a surgery, dealing with a treatable but incurable pain, or dealing with things like migraines or stomach issues and we say, “Oh, that must hurt so much. Poor thing.” But this experience for me is not so much about the physical pain. It’s the mental distraction. This pain is outwardly not even noticeable. The swelling is gone, my mouth looks great. Yet the constant throbbing and, even in times of relief, the fear of when it will return–is interfering with my ability to think. For a writer, could there be anything worse than not being able to put a sentence together because of the incessant throbbing in her bones?

I remember when I was pregnant with my second child. I developed a heart murmur, sciatic pain, and other things too delicate to discuss but that had me crawling around on my floor rather than walking upright on a to get some relief. But I knew there would be a happy ending. At the end of the ninth month I would have a beautiful new baby, my body would mold itself back to semi-functionality, and at least most of the pain would be treatable and disappear. At the time I was thinking about a colleague of mine who I knew suffered with incredible back pain all the time. While I respected her before my pregnancies, my estimation of her rose by leaps and bounds after child #2. To get up every day, in extreme pain that cannot be fixed and which would have no scheduled end, go to work, grocery shop, visit with friends, live through the motions of daily life–it seemed superhuman.

It still seems superhuman to me. I have the hope and belief that I will continue to heal. They say I won’t really be fully recovered until August, and so I can’t worry too much until then. I’ll keep alternating ice and heat packs, take a muscle relaxant when I know I’ll be off the road for a day, and go to my chiropractor for TMJ exercises and therapeutic massage. I’m incredibly grateful to have the support of my family, doctors, dentist, and periodontal surgeon–who says all of these side effect are completely normal (and that is backed up by Dr. Google).

But right now every day is a chore. I have writing to do; VBS to plan, teach, and help run; an amazing summer vacation with the husband and my girls to prepare for; things I want to do with friends; projects around the house I want to work on. Indeed, my husband and I were supposed to take this month–his first real month in semi-retirement–to do some home organization. But the pain is such a distraction that everything I’m doing takes twice as long as it should, cutting my productivity in half. I also get tired so much faster that my ability to work is cut in half again. A late-afternoon nap derailed this publication. And if I’ve stayed on schedule and done the things I’ve committed to do on time, I have absolutely no energy left over.

It’s so easy to get discouraged, even though it’s been less than a month. But like everyone else out there, I soldier on and try to be grateful for the capacity I do have rather than focus on the difficulties. After all, what choice do I have? In all these things, however, I will carry on with increased appreciation for everyone who is fighting a health battle–most infinitely harder than mine–especially those no one can see.

This is true of some of my fellow-sirens, and I am writing this as much for them as for anyone else. I am amazed at your strength. I am in awe of your determination, every day, to make it the best day it can be. I am devastated by the failures of the medical community to diagnose and treat you. I am sorry if I have ever been unsupportive or unsympathetic.

Every time I have to step away from writing to get another heat pack; every time I have to get up to get a Tylenol; every time I have to close the computer and take a nap, I think of you. I appreciate the wisdom you have imparted to me about self-care. I don’t think I’d be as okay as I am right now without it. I love you ladies beyond measure. Thank you for letting me one of you.

2 replies »

  1. Even in ongoing pain, Diane, you are so very compassionate and thoughtful. I attended a virtual reading and discussion last night for Jennifer Lunden’s book American Breakdown, and someone pointed out that complaining is anti-ableist—which is a perspective I love. I’m glad you shared this experience and the perspective it has given you; there’s a lot to be said for letting others help carry a burden. And I definitely get the mental exhaustion of pain, and the frustration of not being able to do the things you want to! Keep being gentle with yourself. Sending hugs.


  2. Godspeed to the day you wake up and forget you even have teeth because your mouth is healed. Pain steals so much from us. I like how you remind me pain can help us be compassionate toward others.


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