wisdom teeth
© 1999 Jamie Zawinski <jwz@jwz.org>


I'm here to tell you that sometimes (only sometimes) your dreams really can come true!

All those years of dental trauma finally paid off; I guess my subconscious has been moving backwards in time, and giving me the post-traumatic stress beforehand. Because, after years of my dentist's nagging, I finally consented to have my wisdom teeth out.

They hadn't been bothering me, you see, so a policy of non-aggression seemed prudent to me. You don't mess with me, I won't mess with you. Can't we all just get along?

``Well,'' she said, ``no, you can't.'' She told me that there was close to no chance that I was going to go to my grave with these teeth (``well, unless you die early,'' she added.) They were going to start causing trouble someday, and so I might as well have them out now, both because that would mean that I wouldn't have to have surgery while I also had an infection, and because the older you are, the more dangerous surgery is.

The horror stories began: apparently there's a nerve that runs through your lower jaw, and it sometimes passes right between the roots of the wisdom teeth. Traumatize this nerve badly enough, and your lower lip and the tip of your tongue can go permanently numb. ``On an 18-year-old, you can grab that nerve and stretch it across the room and it'll just spring right back. But it's all downhill from there.''

How long will recovery take? A few days, but it could be a few months if things go really badly -- `` like if we accidentally break your jaw. That can happen.'' This is just sounding like more and more of a party, isn't it? ``And of course your odds are worse the older you get. You really should have had these out ten years ago, you know.''

[ x-ray ]

Sigh. Ok, ok. I submit. So I scheduled the appointment. My regular dentist referred me to another dentist to do the actual surgery. At the time, I assumed it was because she isn't a surgeon, but it turns out that she is: it's just that she didn't really feel up to the challenge presented by my mouth. The other dentist said, ``Whenever I get a referral from her, I know it's going to be a fun one.''

So they gave me some Valium to take the night before and the morning of the surgery, and Raven shuttled me around and baby-sat me that night (she said I had some payback coming to me after having baby-sat her through surgery before.) So when I arrived at the office, I was feeling extremely mellow, but still a little nervous.

Then they put a needle in my arm and pumped me up with who-knows-what. (They used a cute trick to distract me from the actual puncture -- it turns out that if someone dribbles cold water on your arm while they're doing it, you don't notice the needle going in. Some kind of misdirection!)

The next thing I remember is waking up (later that night? The next day? I have no idea) in excruciating pain. I could hardly open my eyes, and there were bags of frozen peas strapped to my head.

They gave me Vicodin for the pain, and listen up kids, Vicodin has absolutely no recreational aspect to it whatsoever. If it has any actual pain-killing side-effects they are minor and incidental. If I took one pill, it make me feel slow and stupid, but without making me feel happy about being slow and stupid. If I took two pills, I was unconscious within thirty minutes. So basically, that's how I spent the week -- unconscious in a drugged stupor, waking only to stumble to the bathroom, or to swap the now-frozen-and-mushy peas with a fresh bag from the freezer. And Ibuprofen, for the swelling. (I did not swell up like a chipmunk, as most people predicted. All praise the peas.)

A few days later, as I was propped up on the corner of the couch (gotta keep the head elevated to avoid swelling, you know!) I had a lovely new experience: I had just taken some Vicodin, and I was about to doze off, and every time I started falling asleep, I would wake with a start, choking: it felt like I had forgotten how to breathe. As soon as I started falling asleep, I stopped breathing, which woke me up.

So I called the doctor. He told me, ``If you can breathe while you're awake, you can breathe while you're asleep. You're just freaking out.'' He didn't say it that way, of course, he was very nice about it, but that was the gist of it. ``Try just one pill next time.'' he suggested. I figured out how to breathe again in about an hour, so I guess it was all in my head.

Oh, the pain. But the worst part, the absolute worst part, worse than the pain, worse than the dummy-drugs, was the fucking fruit smoothies! They were ok for the first couple of days, but I'm telling you, if I never have to drink another fruit smoothie again as long as I live, that will be just fine.

Toss a banana in the blender. Pour in a couple of cups of orange juice. Toss in a few dollops of plain yogurt, and a scoop of protein powder. Rest head against cabinet until vertigo passes. Press the button. Buzz until liquid. Pour. Not a bad tasting concoction, really, but it's not food! I was fucking starving all the time! In theory, this stuff will keep you alive, but my stomach disagreed. ``Send down some steak, please,'' it kept saying. ``Or at least a piece of bread? A cracker?''

After a few days, I decided to give something a little more solid a go: some hummus, on really soft bread, torn from the middle of the loaf. That was a mistake -- the spices got under the stitches and made me see colors.

Sashimi! That actually worked ok; I could dice it up into small enough chunks with my front teeth that I could swallow it whole. But I still couldn't eat fast enough to make it feel like I had actually eaten. And rice was out of the question (it could get stuck in the little holes, and what a mess that would be.)

About a week later, Ashley and crew coaxed me out of the house, to go see an art-opening-slash-rave at MOMA. Dinner was first on the agenda. As I sat there trying to read the menu (reading being a difficult thing in my drugged state) I was realizing that the fruit smoothie I had just downed was really doing nothing for me. All this food, nothing, not a thing I can eat. Wait, soup! They have a soup special! I can have soup!

Oh, great. So I ordered it. It was soup. It was cold. It was boring. But at least it didn't contain bananas, orange juice, yogurt, and protein powder.

I have this vague memory that during dinner, people kept trying to make conversation with me. I think that mostly what I did was just blankly stare at them.

So we went to the show/party. The art installations were very cool, but all things considered, they would have been more enjoyable during the day, when the museum was filled with museum people rather than tripping club kids: many of the exhibits involved sound, and you couldn't hear anything over the extremely irritating ravers plodding about.

We hung out downstairs listening to music for a few hours, and mostly it was no fun at all; it's hard to tell whether this was because the crowd and music were especially irritating, or whether it was just because my meds were wearing off and I was getting grumpy from the pain. At one point I grumbled something about how hungry I was, and Angela started giving me attitude along the lines of, ``hello, we just came from a restaurant!'' ``And I had cold soup!'' I retorted. ``And who's fault was that?'' ``It was the only thing on the menu I could eat!'' ``Oh...'' At last, sympathy. So, I went home early; I generally try not to inflict myself on others when I'm in pissy moods like that. (For those of you in the peanut gallery who think I'm pissy all the time, ha! You don't know what pissy is.)


Now, let me tell you a little about Vicodin. It's a synthetic substitute for morphine, which is an opiate. Have you seen the excellent movie Trainspotting? For those keeping score at home, Heroin is also an opiate. And there is a side-effect that Vicodin has in common with these other drugs: I refer you to the scene in Trainspotting entitled, ``The Worst Toilet in Scotland.''

When I stopped taking the Vicodin, as Renton said, ``suddenly, I was no longer constipated.'' And I'll just leave it at that.


A week and a half after the surgery, I had my followup visit to the dentist. His first question was, ``Any numbness?'' It had been numb on the first day, but was fine after that. ``Good,'' he said, ``because that's the only thing we can't fix.''

I asked if any of the teeth had come out in one piece, so that I could have a souvenir -- he laughed. ``No, they came out in about ten pieces, there wasn't much left.'' He doodled on the x-ray: ``First we cut them in half here, then we drag this part forward and cut off another slice, then we drag the roots forward a little bit and slice them up too...''

``This one here was a monster,'' he said, pointing at my lower left wisdom tooth (on the bottom right in the x-ray above, the one that's completely sideways.) ``Normally, I can take out four wisdom teeth in half an hour. Yours took 1:45.''

Then he added, ``I'm going to remember your mouth for a long, long time.''


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