For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this absurd fear about my losing my teeth. It was probably fueled in my early years by the pressure of embarking on the vain and competitive career of acting, feeding into the idea that the only way to succeed was to look perfect. After all, at the tender age of nineteen or twenty, I certainly wasn’t looking to be cast as a toothless old crone. I’ve since learned that the “toothless old crones” can actually be the most stimulating parts to play, and makeup goes a long way in helping to achieve that look. Even after finding my confidence and becoming comfortable in who I was, I continued to have recurring nightmares of my teeth falling out – so imagine how shocked I was when one day I bit into a carrot and a piece of my molar broke off with it.
According to my dream dictionary, visions about losing one’s teeth can indicate the fear of growing old – a plausible fear for a young woman working towards a life in the public eye. The second more potent definition from my dream book, was that dreams of losing teeth meant a transition in life. I was intrigued by that. Life is littered with transitions – high school to college, friends to lovers, moving from home to a place of one’s own, an old job to a new job – and we shift into a new state with each one. It was an eerie revelation that my dreams of tooth loss would manifest after I transitioned from a healthy life to one with RA.
Our bodies are a unified organism – when one part breaks down, it can reveal trouble in another area. Just like the eyes, the teeth can tell a story about the body. A reduction of bone density in the jaw can lead to possible tooth loss. I’ve read that people with RA are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Active disease can cause inactivity (no one craves exercise when they’re sore and tired), and a sedentary life creates a greater risk of developing osteoporosis. Some medications can cause dry mouth, and inadequate saliva production can contribute to tooth decay. The pain and inflammation of RA in the hands can make it difficult for people to maintain an accurate cleaning habit.
Regular dental appointments are necessary, but I dread each screeching visit. While my dentist and his staff are extremely amiable, I have never enjoyed the process of having my teeth scraped and cleaned. A vague uneasiness evolves when those sharp metal tools grate against my teeth, emulating that chilling sound of fingernails dragging across a chalkboard. With the presence of RA, the visits are more difficult and it’s challenging to keep my jaw open for any length of time. I’m not as patient sitting in that chair as I used to be, and now I have my stiff joints chiming in making the process more intolerable. My dentist tried to alleviate my dismay at having a broken tooth by telling me that particular molar was one of the oldest in my mouth. Was I supposed to be impressed I’d kept it for so long? At the time, his attempt to mollify me did little to soothe my wounded self. Another tooth was not going to grow in to replace that one, and so, I would have to be fitted for a crown.
As in all things, I got over the shock of my broken tooth. In fact, that broken molar and my continuing dreams of tooth loss have subtly led me to another transition in self-care. I’ve had the fortune of having healthy teeth for most of my life, but I’ve realized now was not the time to grow complacent. RA is rough enough without the threat of osteoporosis, so I know I’ll have to take a more active role in “boning up” with calcium, Vitamin D, and continue to remain physically active. My dreams of tooth loss have continued, but I don’t fear the holes as much. The transitions are never as frightening as I imagine them to be – some are actually pretty good. At my last visit, it was my hygienist’s opinion I should have my own teeth for many years. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last, that my body astounds me with its intricacy. I will have to wage a war against erosion in my joints for the rest of my life, but at least for now, I still have something to smile about.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.