I went to the dentist yesterday afternoon. I’d been dreading the appointment for weeks. In fact, I was originally scheduled for mid-July, but I canceled because I just couldn’t bear the thought of it.
I know a lot of people hate dental appointments. Some are afraid of pain, others shy from the shrill sound of the drill. I don’t mind those things so much. What I really dislike is being reminded of my past.
Sixteen years of bulimia didn’t leave any obvious mark on my body. Except in my mouth. My teeth are a disaster, my gums a bloody nightmare. Most of the time I can forget about it, but those thrice-yearly dental appointments bring all that misery flooding back in vivid detail. I’ve spent literally thousands of dollars to repair my cracked front teeth and graft my receding gums, and now my dentist tells me that the enamel on my molars is so thin that just chewing my food is wearing it away. Nearly five years of pregnancy and breastfeeding haven’t helped, either: my gums are dissolving like cotton candy.
There’s not much to be done while I’m still nursing. For now, I just go in for a cleaning and checkup every four months. The hygienist shakes her head as she checks my gum pockets. “Well, at least they’re still stable,” she says grimly. And I taste regret, bitter as bile in the back of my throat.
For the most part, I’ve forgiven myself for all those years spent with my head in the toilet. I know that bulimia wasn’t a conscious choice, that it was a (admittedly unhealthy) way of coping with painful emotions and experiences. I hated my feelings of powerlessness and anger and sadness, so I stuffed them down with food and then purged them. I loathed my body, so I mercilessly starved it and flogged it with exercise. I wanted to whittle myself down to the bone, pure and clean. But hunger and emotion kept reappearing no matter how hard I tried to extirpate them.
In the midst of this ugliness, some part of me recognized that I was in hell. I reached out to Jack and then sought professional help. It took three years of therapy (with my wonderful psychiatrist R. and in an eating disorders group), a spectacularly humiliating breakdown at work, and a brief stint in a mental hospital before I was finally free. Recovery was the hardest thing I ever did, but it was well worth every tear I shed and every penny I spent.
And yet it’s not over. Once I stop nursing, I’ll probably need crowns on my molars and new gum grafts. That’s more money we won’t have for our family, and that makes me sick. It’s not like we’ll lose our house or our children will go without food, but I still feel guilty. I hate being reminded of the person I once was. Even though in my heart of hearts I know she was in terrible pain, I can’t help but feel that she was selfish and stupid.
I need to let go of this. I can’t freak out every four months for the rest of my life. Somehow, I need to find the strength to forgive my former self, to embrace her and tell her that everything is going to be okay.